Monday 19 November 2012

From Cast Lead to Pillar of Defense: How the IDF has learnt to communicate war in Gaza online

In 2009, I wrote a blog post arguing that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had "fallen off the social media bandwagon". Their digital media campaign in support of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza was hastily conceived, unimaginative and anti-social.

New tools were used to disseminate traditional military messages with little regard for a new online culture of communication.

How times have changed.

Nearly four years later, the IDF's social media strategy is much more sophisticated, offering online audiences regular and engaging updates on the progress of Operation Pillar of Defense.

Comparing 2009 with 2012: YouTube and Twitter

The differences are striking. In the 2009 post, I included a link to this YouTube video:

As I noted at the time, this bland 'press statement' delivered by Capt. Benjamin Rutland takes place in a washed out 'non-place' with the Israeli flag propped up against the wall. Not exactly engaging content.

It's a far cry from the IDF's most recent YouTube videos which now include short, snappy infographic explainers:

And dramatic images of "precision strikes" in which the viewer is on-board with the missile, transported to a video-game like first person perspective:

(These videos offer a compelling illusion - apparently taking the viewer closer to the conflict, but at the same time distancing the viewer from the human cost as airstrikes appear to primarily affect buildings, infrastructure or only the most "evil" of enemies.)
Back in 2009, Twitter was mainly used as a way of linking to exceptionally dry updates on the IDF Spokesperson blog which were often written in impenetrable military jargon. On both the blog and the Twitter feed there was little evidence of the IDF trying to influence, drive and engage in the conversation around the conflict.


Now the IDF Twitter feed is being written in plain English. What's more, the IDF is also using hashtags (#IsraelUnderFire), encouraging Twitter users to retweet their content and creating imagery that the IDF believe will be circulated by online communities.

It is also posting all manner of facts and figures and commenting on the issues which might affect the outcome of the battle for public opinion.

From 2009 to 2012: The IDF's social media learning curve 

In 2009, Noah Shachtman revealed in Wired just how ad hoc the planning for the social media element of the information war had been during Operation Cast Lead, describing the IDF's YouTube campaign as "off-the-cuff" - a last-minute idea by a group of "twenty-something" soldiers.

Shortly after Operation Cast Lead, the IDF's Twitter fell silent for 179 days and only began updating again in August 2009. In December, Haaretz reported that a new media unit would be set up to engage online audiences on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

In the three years since then, the IDF has clearly revisited its approach to social media. According to Reuters the Israeli foreign ministry invested $15 million dollars in social media in 2010 and although the IDF was still learning it was notable that their YouTube channel was beginning to attract the attention of news journalists by the time of the Gaza flotilla raid in May 2010.

A 'behind-the-scenes' TV report demonstrated how the online presence of IDF Spokesperson was updated by a fully operational "New Media desk" by 2011.

Communicating conflict: The blurring boundaries

The 2012 online media campaign for Operation Pillar of Defense is undoubtedly a significant 'improvement' in Israel's attempt to communicate their version of the conflict using social media tools. But challenges remain.

In particular, the use of Twitter more explicitly blurs an already blurred boundary between psychological operations and public information campaigns.

In the last few days, the IDF has addressed all manner of online audiences with its Twitter feed.

Some updates are probably designed to be picked up by journalists - announcing the onset of the airstrikes via Twitter rather than in a news conference was an interesting departure, but hardly surprising given the widespread adoption of Twitter by journalists at media organisations.

A tweet on Sunday was even more obviously directed at journalists:
The IDF's Twitter feed is also trying to leverage an active online community which is supportive of Israel's goals by producing content which can be disseminated online through retweets on Twitter and sharing on social networks. Other content, such as the YouTube explainers, can be seen as an attempt to convince sceptics of Israel's military operation.

These activities might all fall into the remit of public information campaigns, but at the same time the account is being used for purposes which could be viewed as a function of psychological operations.

One IDF tweet issued a warning to Hamas operatives and as Stuart Hughes pointed out on the BBC's College of Journalism blog the IDF's Twitter account has also attracted the attention of Hamas' military wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades.

It is no longer unusual for a war of words on Twitter to accompany armed confrontation. (See also ISAF Media vs the Taliban and the Kenyan Army vs Al Shabaab.)

Communicating messages successfully to different audiences in the same space is problematic, particularly when the 'audience' can write back. Critics have argued that the IDF's Twitter feed is a distasteful addition to an immoral military campaign. The Now Lebanon blog, for example, headlined a post with the title: 'IDF cheerily live-tweets infanticide'.

And the unanswered question is this: what difference, if any, will the IDF's social media campaign make?

A template for the future?

Nevertheless, the IDF's social media campaign in support of Operation Pillar of Defense might prove to be a template for future information operations online as militaries attempt to influence a more fiercely contested informational battlespace.

In 2010, Lt. Gen. W. Caldwell, Dennis Murphy and Anton Menning published an article in the Australia Army Journal in which they suggested that the US military could learn from the IDF's use of social media.

I think they were wrong then in relation to the Gaza conflict in 2009, but they might have subsequently been proved right by events in 2012.

Sunday 4 November 2012

KIA: The brutal reality of war behind the news headlines

Doug Beattie is a British soldier who has served in Afghanistan with the Royal Irish Regiment. I have long been an admirer of the bravery of his honesty. His willingness to openly contemplate, discuss, debate and publish his experience of war in Afghanistan is unusual, providing a rare insight into conflict in the 21st Century.

Over on his blog 'An Ordinary Soldier', he notes that we the hear the phrase 'Killed In Action' on the news on a regular basis, but in this post he takes us beyond the words to what it might mean in reality:

This is how his post 'KIA' begins:  
"You turn on the TV news and there, somewhere after a report on the credit crunch and before the footie, you get the other stuff, events in brief, the stories they haven't got pictures for or don’t think are important enough to warrant two minutes all to themselves.  
"Amongst these fillers you hear the presenter say, 'A British soldier has been killed in action in Afghanistan after being hit by a roadside bomb'. Killed in action. KIA. It all sounds so unsentimental, so impersonal, so clinical. But it's not. It is usually brutal and bloody and painful. So here it comes, the wretched truth about KIA, a truth you’ll never hear, let alone see, on News at Ten. This is what KIA is all about." 
It's not 'easy' reading, but the rest is here...

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Random thought on news: process and package

Instant and alterable web publication has helped facilitate a shift in emphasis in online news: where previously it was always displayed as a processed package, now it is also presented as a packaged process.

Not a new idea of course, but hopefully never written as succinctly.

OK, it probably has been put even more succinctly...but no time to check that right now so I'll just claim it and carry on.

Thursday 13 September 2012

Drone Journalism in the UK?

This blog started its life as a way of documenting my PhD project which is now long since finished.

I thought I might know by now what this blog is becoming - if anything - but I'm afraid I'm not quite there yet.

Which means the blog has kind of lost it's raison d'être ...and without that there's not a lot to be said by it or for it.

There are a few potential projects in the pipeline which might give it a new direction and hopefully next time you stop by, there might be something more - I'll keep you posted.

In the meantime, I've written something on drone journalism at the Frontline Club which you can read here if you haven't seen it already.


Wednesday 22 August 2012

US Navy to spend $249 million on “battlespace awareness”

The US Navy has announced that it will spend up to an estimated $249 million on “battlespace awareness”.
Last Thursday, the Navy awarded a new contract to five intelligence, computer and security companies to provide both hardware and “the development, integration, and test of intelligence, battlespace awareness, and information operations applications”.
In other words, the US Navy is embarking on a major new project in the area of surveillance, technology and data acquisition to provide military commanders with a detailed understanding of any conflict area.
According to the Department of Defense’s own definition “battlespace awareness” includes an area’s “environment, factors, and conditions”, “the status of friendly and adversary forces, neutrals and noncombatants” and “weather and terrain.”
The addition of “information operations” in the contract suggests the project will go beyond the remit of geospatial intelligence and may have some capability for commanders to organise messaging campaigns in an attempt to influence various actors in an area of operations.
The contract raises questions over exactly what information the US Navy is intending to collect and in which conflict areas.
The investment can be understood in the context of the influence of ‘network-centric warfare‘ on US military thinking which emphasises the value of a digitally connected force as a means of improving situational awareness and military decisions.
press release earlier in the year from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) calling for ‘big data’ projects noted that:
“the demands for actionable information have spiked as warfighters at every level—whether at the planning table or on patrol—are called upon to make well-informed decisions”.
The battlespace awareness contract was awarded by the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center and will initially last until August 2013. The US Navy has options in the contract to extend the work to 2017.
The Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center reports directly to the Navy’s Information Dominance Systems Command.

Thursday 31 May 2012

After Leveson? A 'State of the News Media' report for the UK

With each day of Leveson evidence new stones are overturned, shedding more light on the wider systemic and cultural problems that contributed to the phone-hacking scandal.

The ‘post-Leveson’ question becomes ever more pressing, as identified at yesterday’s University of Westminster conference, attended by a range of international media researchers, as well as regulation and legal specialists.

But how will the national media report the outcome of the Inquiry?

The media’s record in self-reporting is shaky, shown by its reluctance to give any credence to the Guardian’s initial story in 2009 revealing serious flaws in the media’s ability to self-regulate.

In an article for June's issue of British Journalism Review, Judith Townend and I demonstrate how a combination of personal, professional, political and commercial dynamics led to a failure of the media’s role as an accountability mechanism in the public interest.

We believe a useful new accountability tool would be an annual audit of all UK news media content.

The lack of coverage of phone hacking

The failure of almost every other news organisation other than the Guardian to regard phone hacking as newsworthy has been well-rehearsed and we have previously shown that perceptions are backed up by the numbers.

But it’s not a lone example of an issue that perhaps should have received more media attention or scrutiny.

We could also look at the reporting of financial institutions prior to the crash in 2008 or the build up to the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003.

As we demonstrate with phone hacking, working out why journalists regard some stories and angles as newsworthy requires significant analysis. But we don’t even have a way of systematically understanding and monitoring what news stories are being published and how they are being covered.

This is beginning to seem a little strange in an era when we can collect and organise vast quantities of data from online news articles. There is no longer any reason why we could not monitor the news values of the media in a far more comprehensive manner for the benefit of the future of journalism.

Accessing article data 

For the BJR essay, we were able to trace all news articles relating to phone hacking over a four year period. And academic research has benefited from resources such as the Nexis® UK database which allows searchable access to decades of news articles.

But research which considers all news topics is often limited to only a few media outlets for a very short period of time and Nexis® UK is only available through subscription.

In the past, it would have been exceptionally time-consuming, if not impossible to conduct an annual survey of every topic or subject that made the news. Today, nearly every news story that appears in print also appears online and news is relatively straightforward to archive.

Towards an annual audit 

By harnessing the potential of “big data” and digital search tools, we should be able to design a sophisticated piece of software which could be used to provide the public with an annual audit of all UK media articles for an entire year.

Data from news stories could be accessed to produce a breakdown of what news subjects were reported, how they were reported, by which journalists, how often and with how much prominence.

This data might be analysed in conjunction with data provided by audiences from clicks on web links and the number of times articles have been shared by web users on other websites. Information that is already being collected internally by news organisations.

This annual review of news could and should go beyond “newspapers” – a category of increasingly dubious relevance in a convergent media world. It could document all major online news sources whether they’re newspapers, broadcasters, new media websites or influential bloggers.

Independent researchers could then analyse this data to write an accessible and publicly available online report on the nature of UK news content.

A report which would provide the public with a more detailed understanding of what was regarded as newsworthy and how news topics have been reported.

Learning from projects in the United States

An annual review of this nature is not only possible, it’s also already being done outside the UK. In the United States, the Pew Research Center’s “State of the News Media” report analysed 46,000 stories from 52 news outlets in 2011.

One section of the report offered a comprehensive understanding of which stories and topics were regarded as newsworthy by American journalists and included data for news being shared by bloggers and Twitter users.

There is also an interactive online feature on the Pew website which means the public can make their own comparisons between the coverage of news stories in different media outlets.

It would be useful to combine this approach with that of the Media Cloud project, run by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. This project includes an open source online tool highlighting which key words were used in relation to major news topics on a weekly basis by individual news organisations.

In the UK, perhaps the closest we have to anything similar is, run by the Media Standards Trust. This website monitors articles written by individual journalists as well as a weekly and yearly round up of which news topics are “covered lots” or “covered little”.

This represents a useful starting point, but the depth of data and analysis is limited compared with the projects in the United States.

The value of an annual audit

An annual audit of UK media content undertaken by an independent organisation would only be a small part of much more wide-ranging solution to the issues raised by the phone-hacking scandal.

It would not illuminate journalists’ decision-making, hold them to account prior to publication or tackle newsroom culture and practices.

But it is a practical step forward which would provide a comprehensive overview of what stories are making the news and trends in the way those news stories are reported.

It would be an accountability tool that could benefit both news organisations and the public.

For journalists and editors, it would be a useful resource helping them reflect on the shape of their coverage over the course of a year.

For the wider public, it would provide a much more informed starting point for a broad debate on the how the media reports the news.

We would welcome comments, criticisms and suggestions to help us take this idea forward.

Tuesday 22 May 2012

A case study in Twitter and verification

Saturday 19 May 2012

Links on Twitter and Mapping

I've been coming across lots of interesting mapping links recently. This has not been entirely accidental. Maybe that might come to something one day, but in the meantime here are a few of the things I've found...

Friday 18 May 2012

Media coverage of Somalia

I was at an event discussing the nature of media coverage from Somalia yesterday. It was a very interesting discussion with contributions from various people with experience of reporting from the country. A round up is available on my Frontline Club blog.

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Official Twitter response to attacks in Norway

Wednesday 25 April 2012

BBC journalist Stuart Hughes on newsgathering with Twitter and social media

In this video, World Affairs Producer Stuart Hughes talks about his use of social media at the BBC. He was speaking on a course organised by the BBC College of Journalism on 20 April 2012:

I spoke to Stuart Hughes several times while writing my thesis on the impact of blogging on the BBC's coverage of war and terrorism.

There are a few things worth picking out here about his changing practices in the newsroom.

Just one to get you started is Stuart's shift away from ENPS towards Hootsuite, a Twitter application.

The Essential News Production System is a piece of software designed by the Associated Press which provides all BBC journalists with news and information from news agency sources and other BBC journalists. First installed in 1996, it is also used to produce TV and radio programmes.

In the video, Stuart points out that he still has ENPS open somewhere on his desktop, but for newsgathering he'll mostly be looking at Hootsuite which allows him to monitor many more sources on Twitter.

Using Hootsuite, Stuart has built different Twitter lists for various news topics and stories so he can keep across developments in each area. Notably, these are not public lists, but are kept private in an attempt to compete with rival news organisations.

If you watch the video, it's also worth looking out for a question halfway through where a member of the audience asks whether Stuart uses Twitter as a "single source", which relates to the BBC's practices over sourcing information.

Wednesday 18 April 2012

Twitter coverage of the trial of Anders Behring Breivik in Norway

Just flagging up an article I wrote for Index on Censorship for the often unrewarded and hardy followers of this blog.

Among other things, I ask: does it make sense to ban the cameras but not the tweeters from the Breivik trial?

(You know the score by now): to read more click here.

Friday 13 April 2012

Is blogging journalism? A 'celebration' of ten years of asking the wrong question

Martin Belam is off. Leaving The Guardian for something new. Bon voyage sir!

But before he left, he posted a great blog [included especially for Adam Tinworth] about the confusion surrounding journaling and bloggism. 

Martin was so piqued by a recent tweet from Media Bistro asking: "Are bloggers journalists?" that he was compelled to try to find out the first online reference to the great question of our age:
"The earliest explicit mention of the question I have been able to unearth via Google though is from 11th April 2002. 
"On David F. Gallagher’s blog of pictures of New York City, he posted a link to an article entitled “Are bloggers journalists?” with the URL 
"Sadly has disappeared, so I can’t retrieve the actual piece."
In other words, Martin notes, we've just celebrated the 10th anniversary of this particular non-conundrum. 

But enough of this already.

Let's just call a blog a blog

I'm off to find an ice cream strawberry.

Thursday 12 April 2012

Research: A Twitter Revolution in Breaking News


Twitter facilitates the spread of news and information enabling individuals to combat censorship and undermine the stranglehold of state-controlled media. It is undoubtedly playing a significant role in a rapidly evolving digital media landscape and 21st century politics. But journalists’ dubbing of the events in Moldova, Iran, Tunisia and Egypt as “Twitter revolutions” is perhaps more reflective of the experience of their own changing working practices than the politics on the ground. It points to a Twitter revolution occurring in the newsrooms of media organisations, evident in the increasing importance of Twitter for journalists covering breaking news stories.

The Paper

Available here to download from the Social Science Research Network.


Bennett, D., 'A Twitter Revolution in Breaking News' in Keeble, R. & J. Mair (eds.), Face the Future: Tools for the Modern Media Age, (Abramis, 2011), pp. 63-73.

Thursday 5 April 2012

Research: "A Gay Girl in Damascus", the Mirage of the "Authentic Voice" and the Future of Journalism


In the 21st century journalists are making judgements, usually at speed, about whether to trust the identity of a “real” person through their “virtual” representation. 

In order to maintain their cultural dominance over the representation of reality and their role in making sense of the world, journalists and news organisations have thus far reiterated their commitment to traditional practices of fact-checking and verification.

This article demonstrates, however, that traditional journalistic practice was not sufficient to spot the Gay Girl in Damascus hoax - a fake blog set up in Syria during the 'Arab Spring'. Instead, it was the adoption of a networked approach to journalism that ultimately uncovered the author, Tom MacMaster.

The article shows that increasingly, understanding and representing reality requires a “mutualistic interaction” between traditional news organisations and the new models of journalism, enabling us to identify, hear and amplify the “authentic voices” calling for political and social change around the world.

The Paper 

Available here to download from the Social Science Research Network. 


Bennett, D., 'A "Gay Girl in Damascus", the Mirage of the "Authentic Voice" and the Future of Journalism' in Keeble, R. & J. Mair (eds.), Mirage in the Desert? Reporting the Arab Spring, (Abramis, 2011), pp. 187-195.

Thursday 29 March 2012

So what next...?

People keep asking me this, so I thought it was about time I began trying to answer it.

After Easter I'll be stepping up the search for the next challenge post-PhD.

I've already applied for a Soros foundation fellowship from September for a new project in the area of military use of social media. And I'm hoping to drum up some more freelance social media consultancy work to pay a few bills in the meantime.

But I'm looking for other options and exciting possibilities in the fields of media, journalism, social media, international politics, warfare, conflict, research and academia.

I have a preference for either being based in London or opportunities in any other interesting places outside the UK.

And it would help if research and publishing information was a major part of the job whether tweeting, blogging, podcasting, writing articles, papers or books etc.

I'm also open to exploring more informal partnerships, freelance projects/work.  
But I'm not going to take anything off the table, so if something jumps out at me and says: "This is the next exciting thing to be doing", then I'd go for it.

So if you hear of anything, I'd be interested in hearing from you.

You can email me at

And you can find out more about my experience at Linked In.

Wednesday 28 March 2012

Insight 2.0: The Future of Social Media Analysis

Just a note to say I'm looking forward to taking part in this event on 27 April looking at the future of social media analysis. 

There are some great speakers including Kevin Anderson, Pippa Norris, Alberto Nardelli, Simon Collister etc's well worth checking out the programme

I'll be moderating the first panel in my role as "independent social media expert" - a title I wouldn't give to myself but I suppose "done a bit of research about blogging and social media" isn't the way to sell yourself. 

If you're interested in coming along, there are still tickets available and they are very affordable (for those of you who are worried about budgeting for that 20% increase in the price of pasties.)

If you're affiliated to a university there is a special rate of £37 which you can snap up by emailing for a discount code.   

Tuesday 27 March 2012

A note of thanks at the end of the PhD

I'm not sure if a PhD ever really ends.

There seems to be a lot of bits and pieces I'd like to revise and update. Research that I started as part of the project and I'd like to try to finish up for possible future papers.

I'm also hoping to be able to publish the thesis in book form as well which means I might have to revisit some of it for the 654th time.  

But in many other respects the PhD is finished.

I have a piece of paper saying I've passed and the library at King's College, London has a final copy (for a shelf somewhere which will increase the area available in the library for dust-gathering.)

This blog has always been much more of an online research diary and scrapbook than an outlet for my personal story, but I'd like to temporarily hijack it.

I'd be lying if I said the PhD was all a breeze, because with any PhD there are inevitably lows as well as highs. But I'm not somebody who is wondering what the point of it all was.

I've really enjoyed it and I believe it was worthwhile work. I've learnt masses and developed a variety of transferable skills along the way. I believe other people have benefited from the project and others will do so in the future. I've had some great opportunities to do all sorts of exciting things and meet lots of interesting people.

And I'm very grateful for all of that. Rather unfairly, the PhD has my name on the side of the cover, but I am just a small part of the story - the person who brought lots of different things and themes and thinking and hard work together in one place.

And I'd like to say thanks to all the people who made it possible.

In particular, I owe a great debt of gratitude to my family, my friends, my supervisor at the War Studies Department, the Frontline Club, everybody at the BBC who contributed to the project and the Arts and Humanities Research Council for funding me.

I've also benefited immensely from interactions with people online who have taken an interest in the project whether through comments on blog posts either here or at the Frontline Club or on Twitter.

In fact, I can't imagine doing a PhD without access to a 'virtual office' of ideas, information and support. (Although it's not quite as frightening as the prospect of writing one on a typewriter...but anyway).

Finally, I want to say that I dedicated the PhD to my grandparents, Donald and Iris Mead. They gave so much to me in so many ways, but sadly both passed away before I finished the project.

I also want to mention my friend Lineu Vargas - a man who not only took a keen intellectual interest in my work but who was also concerned with my welfare more generally. He was tragically killed in a car accident last year.

It's a comfort to me that the last time I saw him, I was able to celebrate submitting the first version of the PhD with him.

And I'm sure he'll be raising a glass of good red wine somewhere to join in future celebrations...

Wednesday 21 March 2012

For further thought: The aggregator is king...?

In an era of information overload, the aggregator who points you to the most relevant, most useful, most interesting, most entertaining and most timely content and engages with you in the conversation around that content is king.

Thursday 8 March 2012

The Russian Internet: "Open and free"

I've just been reading this encouraging report about the state of the Russian Internet.

It suggests that "bottom-up" agenda setting and collective online civic action are all possible in Russian cyberspace. Government control and influence also remains limited.

The report is based on three years of research by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

I've picked out a few key points:

Openness and civic action

"Overall, we find that the Russian Internet remains generally open and free despite the various ongoing efforts to shape cyberspace into an environment that is friendlier towards the government."

"The watchdog function of the Russian Internet appears especially strong. There are a large and growing number of examples of Russians identifying problems of common concern and coming together online to push back against abuses of the state or powerful corporate interests."

"The evidence is compelling that Russians are producing and sharing information online that is collectively determined to be of public importance, and in doing so, circumventing the tighter restrictions on traditional media. The ability of Russians to organize and act on that information appears to be equally, if not more important, than the simple access to information and collective filtration of topics and identification of salient agendas."

Pro-government bloggers

"Critically, we do not find evidence that efforts by the government to push its message online through supporters, paid or otherwise, are very successful. The mere presence of pro-Kremlin bloggers does not necessarily translate into influence as the broader online community is not compelled to link to such blogs or to adopt pro-government messages."

"Pro-government blogs are rarely found on our map of prominent blogs as measured by in-links from other bloggers."

Pro-government Twitter users

"However, we do find that pro-government users are more successfully entrenched in Twitter. Specifically, pro-Putin youth groups like the Young Guards and Nashi, and elected officials allied with them, have a distinct Twitter footprint. Still, we find many of the same oppositional groups as we do in the blogosphere on Twitter (with the exception of the nationalists) so more pro-government users have not crowded out oppositional communities."

"We also found evidence that one cluster of Twitter users—those centered on the Medvedev policy of modernization—is popular primarily because it is promoted by bots and instrumental Twitter users."

Methods of control

"There are two methods for controlling online speech that appear to have a greater impact than pro-government information campaigns and are likely to be perpetuated by the government or their sympathizers to limit speech on the Internet."
  • "The first is offline attacks and threats against journalists and others critical of the federal and local officials and powerful business interests..."
  • "The second persistent threat to online speech in Russia is DDoS attacks. The disabling of nearly twenty independent news and election monitoring sites on Election Day is the most extreme and most wide-reaching example of coordinated DDoS attacks in Russia to date."

Wednesday 8 February 2012

It is necessary to regulate a 'free press' to protect 'freedom of expression'

Yesterday, at the launch event for this new book on the phone hacking scandal something struck me as problematic with the current debate about the future of the press. 

And it was this: the conflation and confusion of 'freedom of expression' with 'freedom of the press'. 

It is particularly misleading in the context of the debate around regulation. Regulating the press will undoubtedly have an impact on the 'freedom of the press'. 

But regulating the press is frequently described as a move that would have a damaging effect on 'freedom of expression': the more regulation of the press you have, the more 'freedom of expression' will suffer. 

What the phone hacking scandal has demonstrated is that quite the opposite can be true: a lack of regulation has meant 'freedom of expression' has suffered. Phone hacking epitomises the way in which 'freedom of expression' can and has been undermined by the 'freedom of the press'. 

I cannot see how 'freedom of expression' has been advanced by the risk that a 'free press' will hack into individuals' private expressions of their views in voicemails and publish them to the world.

And this is merely one aspect which made an impact because it was also illegal.  

Every time the press publishes a headline which has no resemblance to the story beneath or sensationalises a story or rips a quote out of all context or strips people's Facebook profiles for information or decides it would be in the 'public interest' to silence anonymous bloggers or simply makes up a story, the 'free press' assaults 'freedom of expression'. 

Essentially then, the 'free press' damages 'freedom of expression' in two arenas: perhaps most shockingly in the ever-complicating 'private' realm by putting freely expressed private statements into the public domain, but also in the ever-complicating 'public' realm by distorting public announcements.   

The latter is one of the reasons why the PR industry in the UK has grown so substantially. Whether you are a politician or representing a company or increasingly an 'ordinary person', it has become necessary to pay people for expert advice on what you are able to freely express in public. 

And if the boundaries between the 'public' and the 'private' realms continue to blur, how long will it be before each of us needs our own personal PR adviser to help us work out what we are safe to freely express in our increasingly public private lives?         

I believe a 'free press' is vital for democracy. But the time when a 'free press' should have started using that freedom responsibly to stand up for 'freedom for expression' rather than abusing it to turn a profit has already passed. 

We need a more effective system of regulation which protects 'freedom of expression' from a 'free press'. And at the same time, we need to ensure that a newly regulated 'free press' is also able to protect 'freedom of expression'.   

Not least because 'freedom of expression' faces much greater threats, both now and in the future, from companies and governments around the world. 

Monday 6 February 2012

Phone Hacking: Exploring 'media omerta'

“[Nick] Davies’s work…has gained no traction at all in the rest of Fleet Street, which operates under a system of omerta so strict that it would secure a nod of approbation from the heads of the big New York crime families"
Peter Oborne, The Observer, April 2010

"There seemed to be some omerta principle at work that meant that not a single other national newspaper thought this could possibly be worth an inch of newsprint" 
Alan Rusbridger, Editor of the Guardian, Newsweek, 2011

Tomorrow I'm heading into London to go to Coventry University. (Yep, you heard me right.) I'll be attending the book launch of The Phone Hacking Scandal: Journalism on Trial. And you can still get tickets here if you are interested.

Judith Townend and I have written a chapter for the book exploring Oborne and Rusbridger's assertions that the press significantly under-reported the phone hacking scandal - a news story which would eventually lead to the demise of the News of the World, several high profile resignations and the ongoing Leveson Inquiry.

We thought it would be interesting to find out just what 'media omerta' looked like by tracing how many articles were written on the subject from June 2006 to November 2011 and when they were written.

Using the Nexis database, we counted up the number of articles written on the topic in various newspapers. (At the bottom of this post, I have provided a more detailed explanation of the methodology we used including the limitations of the data.)

The table below shows the total number of articles written and even further below I have produced (at some personal cost to my capacity for patience with Google Documents) a few pretty graphs which show the cumulative total number of articles at 6 month intervals.

If you roll over the blue dots at each point it will tell you the cumulative total at the relevant point in time. (Pretty cool, huh. And really straightforward to produce with Google Docs...see hindsight kicking in already).

Table: Total number of articles June 2006 - 10 November 2011

The Guardian 879
The Independent 489
The Telegraph 436
The Times 332
Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday* 318
Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror 162
The Sun 112

Graphs: The Broadsheets
Graphs: The Tabloids
Our Chapter

In the book, we use this as a starting point to explore what all of these numbers mean.

We reckon that explanations for the non-reporting of the phone hacking scandal need to delve beyond simplistic, if valid, assertions of industry cover-up.

To understand why the majority of national newspapers didn't regard phone hacking as newsworthy, it is necessary to unpick a tangled web of contributing factors.

In the chapter, we explore competing professional, political and commercial interests; the failure of other organisations – particularly the Metropolitan Police – to investigate the matter thoroughly; and the intimidating power of News International.

Note on Methods

We retrieved articles for the following search terms in news articles between 1 July 2006 and 10 November 2011: (‘phone tapping’) or (‘phone hacking’) or (‘voicemail interception’) and (‘news of the world’). The articles were filtered for ‘moderate similarity’ ensuring that most duplicates were discarded. Some duplicates may not have been filtered out and it is possible that articles relevant to phone hacking which did not satisfy the search terms were not counted. The data should therefore not be regarded as completely accurate in terms of unique numbers but the approach nevertheless provides a valuable assessment of the comparative weight of coverage given to phone hacking by each title. 

*The Nexis database groups Daily and Sunday together.

Thursday 2 February 2012

Social media from the front line

Major Paul Smyth is one of the people responsible for changing the Ministry of Defence’s approach to social media particularly in the context of front line operations.
I’ve spoken to him previously for the Frontline Club about his Frontline bloggers project
In this interview with David Bailey, Maj. Smyth talks in some detail about how he used social media to tell the story of British military deployments from Kosovo to Afghanistan. 
These are a few of the things that caught my eye (after I’d spent a few moments puzzling over the indoor brick wall):
1. In Kosovo, Maj. Smyth began making 2 minute YouTube videos and sending the URLs to journalists in Sarajevo to try to capture their interest. Putting these videos online meant they could also be viewed by military wives, girlfriends and families in the UK.
2. He says that in order to get coverage in national newspapers or on the BBC, he needed an "incredible story". But a blog allowed him to provide "behind the scenes" footage and to publish smaller stories for interested audiences on a regular basis.   
3. He targeted influential defence correspondents and outlets such as CNN’s i-Report spreading his news "footprint over a wider area".  
4. He describes how his blogging team inadvertently trumped the established news procedures of Buckingham Palace and the MoD Press Office.
The team had published a blog post revealing a visit by Princess Anne to Camp Bastion an hour too early. He claims the subsequent coverage of the post on the BBC and in The Times and The Telegraph "surprised a few people".

Tuesday 24 January 2012

A heady brew

I like this line in 'What is News' by Harcup and O'Neill on the makings of a good newspaper story:
"...our findings...suggest that certain combinations of news values appear almost to guarantee coverage in the press. 
"For example, a story with a good picture or picture opportunity combined with any reference to an A-list celebrity, royalty, sex, TV or a cuddly animal appears to make a heady brew that news editors find almost impossible to resist." 

Drones: At war and at home

Continuing my recent theme on the use of drones in journalism, I came across this Guardian article rather strangely entitled: 'Drones in the hands of the paparazzi? It's an ethics and privacy minefield'

There are some interesting observations here and the article lists some of the important questions raised by the increasing use of drones in military contexts:
"Do drones lower the threshold of war, encouraging those who deploy them to be more bellicose? Can they or their operators sufficiently discriminate combatants from civilians in order to comply with international law? Are they proportionate, or so horrifically cruel as to qualify, along with anti-personnel landmines and cluster bombs, for prohibition? Does their cybernetic nature make them a biological weapon? What effect does their deployment have on the "hearts and minds" of civilians, or the morale of soldiers? Should we worry that Iran appears to have assumed control of a US drone, having kidnapped it out of the sky? And who is to blame when drones go wrong?"
But then right at the end, the article notes that drones are making the leap from foreign to domestic policy which left me with the impression that the piece was suggesting that what we should really be worrying about is the paparazzi using drones.

In other words, there are a few complicated questions about killing 'other people' in foreign lands, but when governments and the media start taking photos of 'us' using drones then we should really become concerned.

I am as worried about privacy, ethics, the media and the use of drones for domestic surveillance as the next person.

But as the article rightly points out (if you read past the headline and the inadvertently misleading structure) there are more pressing "ethical and legal concerns" which we must not lose sight of in future domestic debates on drones.  

Monday 23 January 2012

After 22/7: Journalism educators in Norway reconsider training for terror coverage

"Crisis reporting is set to become integral part of a three year bachelor degree in journalism, if plans to revise the degree’s curriculum go ahead," writes Kristine Lowe.

Click here for details on how the attacks on Oslo and Utöya by Anders Breivik last year are changing journalism training in Norway.

Wednesday 18 January 2012

"Inappropriate" to include bloggers in press regulation

The Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has said that bloggers should not be part of a new regulatory system of the press. 

Speaking to a joint committee on privacy and injunctions he said blogs "perform a different role" from newspapers and bloggers "were often not paid". 

At the same time, he believed blogs were growing in importance to public and democratic debate. 

Citing Guido Fawkes as an example, he said that blogs with large audiences have "huge influence on political discourse" and could do "huge damage to individual reputations if and when they get things wrong". 

Despite their potential relevance to the future of privacy law and the use of injunctions, Hunt was concerned at "trying to solve too many problems at once".

He noted that bloggers are already "subject to the laws of the land" including libel, defamation and data protection breaches. But he acknowledged that the law was sometimes more difficult to enforce if blogs are based outside the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom.

In 2009, Guido Fawkes told the Guardian that it was "a jurisdictional nightmare" to send him a writ as his blog was published by a Caribbean company, had a URL in Germany and was hosted in the United States. 

The joint committee felt that blogging should warrant more attention as some "big bloggers" were making "a lot of money" and that a new regulatory system should not leave an "open door" for irresponsible publishing.   

In a light-hearted moment, Justice Secretary Ken Clarke made it plain that he was "certainly not a blogger", quipping that a "quite disproportionate of nuts and extremists seem to be represented on every blog I've ever known". 

Jeremy Hunt interjected to say he had written a blog post last Friday.

To much amusement, Clarke quickly added: "...with the honorable exception of my friend, the Culture Secretary".
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