Gernika, news reporting and intervention

September 13, 2012

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A trip to Spain has made
me think a lot about the Spanish civil war and news reporting, and especially the bombing of Gernika in 1937 by German and Italian aircraft on behalf of the rebel military, in which hundreds of civilians were killed. The incident was rapidly reported, in particular by Times correspondent George Steer. It is a classic case study for war reporting. Several books cover it in detail. Some issues that it raises:

1. Coverage. The civil war and in particular the northern theatre was regarded as a news priority by British media. The Times, Express and Reuters all had correspondents on the ground; they were having dinner together in Bilbao when they heard the news, and drove to Gernika immediately. French and US media had less coverage and relied on syndication, pickups of other stories or more distant correspondents. What makes media cover something (or not)? Economics? Audience? Story?
2. Reporting. There was good detailed reporting from Steer and others. The correspondents were present and quickly. Steer want back the following day and his report reflects that in its detail and focus. It is worth reading in full. What makes for good, readable, immediate coverage? Why is the person on the spot so crucial? What will replace them?
3. Editorial judgement. There was pressure on the Times editor – which was resisted – to tone down, censor or remove coverage. Dawson was very much inclined towards appeasement but on this he couldn’t be moved. What makes editors act independently? What supports this and what doesn’t?
4. Fog of war. There were other incorrect reports, and use of the incident for propaganda. These muddied the waters and helped critics use misreporting to deny the incident. How do you deal with incorrect reports, especially when it isn’t easy to verify them? Does it matter if some early details were wrong? Does correcting them undermine the story?
5. Response. The response of the (Francoist) rebel military was direct denial of the attack. They claimed the republicans had done it themselves. This story still has credence in some circles. How do governments react to atrocities and humanitarian scandals? How can people stand up against this?
6. Impact. The news coverage had great popular results. It spread to all media and was a spark to wider anger about the fascists and the war. What makes a story like this work? Victims? Nature of atrocity? Immediacy and reporting?
7. Channels of distribution. “Follows” and syndication led to wider dissemination Of the story. In particular, Steer’s report went to the New York Times and to L’Humanite in Paris, the communist paper. How do stories get to readers/viewers? Are there more or fewer channels now? More or less noise?
8. “Memes“. Picasso read l’Humanite and it inspired him to paint the atrocity as part of an existing contract with the Spanish government. It thus triggered a much wider critical conversation. What makes a story part of a wider discussion? Why did this one work? Pure coincidence?
9. Objectivity. Steer had direct conversations with the Basque government and was clearly aligned with them personally. He also had direct conversations with policymakers in London. Later in his career he worked for British military intelligence in an early form of psyops. But was his reporting nonetheless objective? Is objectivity the same as neutrality?
10. Intervention. There was no decisive intervention in favour of the Spanish Republican government despite the reporting. Britain, France and the US had grave doubts about the Republicans and there was sympathy for the fascists in conservtive and Catholic circles. Under what circumstances does reporting of an atrocity in a civil conflict lead to external intervention? When doesn’t it?

Several books on this; and several academic studies. Other questions that could be asked. But: comments? Questions? Suggestions? I am going to produce a longer version of this.

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About getting shot

May 20, 2010

From time to time, a Western journalist on assignment gets shot. It gets into the news and it upsets their family and friends. If they survive, they write about it, and the paper puts it on the front page, if they write for a paper.
This week, that was Andrew Buncombe from The Independent. He was apparently hit in the thigh by shotgun pellets while reporting from Bangkok. He seems OK at time of writing, which one judges by the fact that he has a piece on the front page of the paper.
It is an admirable piece, evocative and immediate first person reporting though with less use of the vertical pronoun than he might have indulged in given the circumstances. His injury is mentioned some way through the article, is not its main feature. and in my edition, anyway, is not featured on the front page. It made the BBC news this morning, though, so they will have sold papers, his wounds.
And that is his job: selling papers. He is very good at it. As a talented young home reporter Andy made a name for himself in London, went to Washington to cover America, which he did with great credit, and then got a job in India covering Asia from New Delhi. He is an unassuming guy with a great sense of humour and a nice turn of phrase.
Selling papers means the Independent will make a little more money today than yesterday (or lose a little less) which is good. That the paper still has correspondents of the calibre of Andy is a minor miracle, given their resources, and the fact that he was in place in Bangkok is testament to the paper’s continuing commitment to international news. But it is spread thin. Andy covers Asia, which extends from the Kamchatka peninsula to Afghanistan, including China and India. “Being there” is a critical part of Andy’s job, the bit he enjoys most and which is probably most important. “Being there” means seeing things and speaking with people and, sometimes, getting shot.
Lots of other people got shot, of course. Non-journalists get shot and it doesn’t make the front page or Radio 4. Lots of Thai civilians got shot and their faceless, nameless bodies lie on the street in the photographs we see in the papers. When a journalist gets shot his or her name and face get in the paper, and make us take notice of the fact that someone is loosing off shotguns in places where civilians get hurt. Which is the job of a foreign correspondent.
The “foreign” part matters. Foreigners bring a degree of detachment and distance (sometimes helpfully, sometimes not) to reporting. And the fact that Andy has reported conflict elsewhere gives him an advantage in reporting. Injuries to foreigners also get taken more seriously than injuries to locals. That is wrong, but given that it is a fact, it is good that an injury to a foreigner brings attention to what has happened to many others in silence.
Andy probably has insurance and a flak jacket (not on his arse, though) and an evacuation service and hostile environment training, and a foreign editor who (mostly) loves him, and a salary and expenses. These are the benefits of being a foreign correspondent and not a local or a stringer or a tourist or a citizen journalist. Citizen journalism has done terrific things, but if you ask people to put themselves in harm’s way to sell newspapers then you need to do more than just thank them. And we should ask people to put themselves in harm’s way to sell newspapers, because that ensures things get reported quickly, effectively, plurally, openly, that people with skill and insight and experience bring us the first draft of history. Selling newspapers means getting timely, authoritative information to large groups of people, at its best.
It costs. It costs lives, of course, but it is also expensive. My interest in its continuation is partly emotional but partly professional concern for seeing international affairs reported by professionals with appropriate support through multiple channels. This means money. I remember a foreign editor, years ago, being told by a colleague that a correspondent had been caught in a helicopter gunship attack. “He is OK,” the colleague said, “but the hire car is a write-off.”
“Hire car?” Said the foreign editor. “Who told him he could hire a car?”
The correspondent was fine. I hope Andy is also fine and wish him and Nisha well.


Web brings new audience for issue groups

February 1, 2010

A fascinating piece from Nieman Journalism Labs on the new role of NGOs and online media. It focuses on Avaaz, a group I am now working with.

“The Internet opens up new means of communications for major NGOs. But does it also make their position vulnerable to a new breed of web-native upstarts, who understand the power of technology more fully? Denise Searle, who has worked with some of the world’s best known NGOs, explores…

Audience and influence are traditionally the ways that both media and NGOs measure their effectiveness. The internet has transformed the way that both can tackle the basics: getting their message across. For non-profit organisations, it has lowered the barriers to reaching people, raising money and transforming ideas into action.

“The problem is that today’s fast-moving internet isn’t an easy fit for all NGOs… Organizations that are known and respected in the real world often face competition for attention from a range of other sources and perspectives in the virtual world….”

“All this indicates that if humanitarian and development NGOs want to attract and retain visitors in the increasingly crowded and competitive online world, and turn them into supporters, they need to provide timely, easy-to-find information, genuinely involve their audiences, and keep up with the latest trends. This is a tall order, particularly when many of the web destinations competing for their audiences’ attention have commercial muscle behind them…”

“How long will it be before international development and humanitarian NGOs see their supporter base eroded by digital native organizations such as Kiva and Avaaz…? Will these digital-savvy communities start mobilizing online to ask hard questions about why, despite years of effort, international development and humanitarian NGOs have not made poverty history or achieved social justice? And how will they be answered?”


Farrell case raises moral issues over forcorrs

September 13, 2009

The military action to rescue a British journalist from the Taliban has once again raised a dozen moral and practical issues about foreign correspondents. The answers aren’t obvious, probably vary from case to case, and are influenced by the side of the debate you start on; but whatever you argue, two men are dead.

New York Times journalist Stephen Farrell had gone to investigate a Nato bombing where civilians had reportedly been killed and was kidnapped. In the rescue mission mounted by British forces, a British soldier, Farrell’s Afghan translator, Sultan Munadi, and two civilians were killed.

David Rohde, himself recently kidnapped and then freed, describes Munadi in affectionate terms on the NYT website. “Skinny as a beanpole, generous to an extreme and with an easy laugh, Sultan M. Munadi was an Afghan striver,” he said. (There are instructions on the NY Times site for how to send contributions to the family of Munadi, which I commend to readers.)

Mr. Munadi, 34, a father of two, worked as an office manager and reporter in the Kabul bureau; people like him get described as fixers, when in fact they are often much more.

“He and other Afghan reporters who work with foreign journalists are vastly more than interpreters,” says Rohde. “The death… illustrated two grim truths of the war in Afghanistan: vastly more Afghans than foreigners have died battling the Taliban, and foreign journalists are only as good as the Afghan reporters who work with them.”

Farrell also pays tribute to Munadi. He was “trying to help me right up to the very last seconds of his life”, he says on a blog post for the New York Times. The Guardian reports, however, that “some [Afghan] officials have threatened to declare Farrell, currently staying at the British embassy, as a persona non grata, effectively banning him from Afghanistan.”

Afghan journalists, the BBC says,  “say the incident has revealed double standards among the international forces in the country. “This was a totally thoughtless raid resulting in the death of Sultan,” he said. Bari Salam, an editor for Afghan public radio, said there were “strong indications that Sultan was shot by the British forces” and that British forces had not aimed to rescue him. “We know now that he was not on the list of people to be rescued by this rescue operation. Simply, he was left alone,” he said. “Once again we see there is a big difference in terms of attaching value to human lives when it comes to Afghans.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Mr Farrell had ignored “very strong advice” not to travel to the area. He added that all those involved had been “determined to rescue both hostages”.

In the UK, the Daily Telegraph has also been concerned about the life of the soldier that died on the rescue mission. “One senior Army source told the Daily Telegraph “When you look at the number of warnings this person had it makes you really wonder whether he was worth rescuing, whether it was worth the cost of a soldier’s life.”

Cpl John Harrison, 29, of the Parachute Regiment was serving with the Special Forces Support Group. In the Telegraph, Cpl Harrison has been described as “a wonderful son, brother and a dedicated soldier” by his family, who said they were “heartbroken” at their loss. “His hallmark was an undemonstrative, yet profound, professionalism; he cared deeply about his work, and more deeply still about those he commanded and served alongside, ” said his commanding officer, whose name was not released by the Ministry of Defence due to the role of the unit. “He was an unflinching and inspirational man with a deep, deep pool of courage, who died as he lived – at the forefront of his men.”

The morals of the story are many and complex. Farrell had reportedly been warned not to go the area by Nato military; but do we expect journalists to heed such warnings? When the issue at stake was whether or not Nato forces had killed civilians? Some commentators have used the issue against Farrell, hinting that he is too gung ho. But if you know the guys that do this reporting, few are shrinking violets. A refined sense of self-preservation, luck and good fixers are what keep most out of trouble. And: should UK forces have acted to rescue him or left it to the negotiators? What would have been best for Farrell, for Munadi, for Harrison? Do we assume that any of those people don’t have interests that count here – and if so why?

The argument for a foreign correspondent is that they are reporting not from the perspective of the local observer, but are detached, professional and more objective. You can’t “crowd-source” from northern Afghanistan. We need to objectively verify the facts about Nato and Taleban actions (as objectively as we can). And the reporter needs, consequently, a high degree of autonomy. That is important; but what, in exchange, can he or she expect in support from the local community, international forces, their employer? Is it really right an outsider has some priviliged status? Does it make a difference if the organisation they works for makes a profit? Has a view on the conflict? What nationality they are? Is a foreign correspondent any different from a local journalist, an aid worker, an intelligence officer, an academic…

Which begs the question: do we keep sending these guys to war zones? (Who is we? Media organisations). To what end? With what protection, under what circumstances, with what results? What is the point of a foreign correspondent, and what are they worth?  A life? Two?


Why Rohde kidnap is best kept quiet

June 24, 2009

Media coverage of a journalist kidnapping shows why those who work in this area almost never speak with the press. Some things are just better not discussed. Period.

David Rohde, the New York Times correspondent, disappeared seven months ago with his fixer. He reappeared last week, having reportedly escaped. In between, there was precious little media reporting because the Times enforced (as best as it could) a news blackout. This is not uncommon in kidnap and ransom (K and R) situations. The experts that handle these issues tend to insist on it.

The ethics of this have been debated, largely positively. Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post analysed the decision in a relatively neutral tone, having spoken with NYT Exec Ed Bil Keller.

‘Keller consulted not only government experts but also other news organizations that had been through similar experiences, and there was “a pretty firm consensus,” he said, “that you really amp up the danger when you go public. . . . It makes us cringe to sit on a news story,” but in a life-or-death situation, “the freedom to publish includes the freedom not to publish.”’

But Gawker, a NY-based blog, thinks the real reason for the news blackout was to keep the price on Rohde’s head down, which it believes is wrong. “The only thing that matters in a situation like this is Rohde’s life and safety, and we find it very difficult to begrudge the Times‘ handling of the situation. But asking reporters to quash a newsworthy story in order to preserve a life is a very different thing from asking for help to save the New York Times Co. some money.”

Others point out that the Times is itself apparently inconsistent about news blackouts: it has reported some kidnappings, and in other cases where secrecy might be justified has gone ahead with publication.

There is also controversy – and will be more – about what exactly happened to get Rohde released. As New York Magazine says, “The official story about the Times reporter’s dramatic kidnapping and escape leaves much unexplained.” It discusses the problems within and between the teams that worked on Rohde’s release. This story from the Christian Science Monitor also hints at some of the issues surrounding the release. Both – if read carefully – show why this (and most other cases) are best not discussed. Methods, prices, channels, techniques, people – are all talked about and this doesn’t help. In fact for some poor sod we don’t even know about locked in a cupboard in Afghanistan, it could be deadly; not to speak of those that will get taken afterwards.

You might say: well, maybe the Taliban are not great readers of New York Magazine? Which is fair enough, except that the internet of course makes this free for all. Or you might say: but don’t other cases (government secrecy, intelligence, family issues) also justify a degree of self-censorship? I wouldn’t disagree, though in the case of K and R, I tend to think that blanket restrictions are easier to support. And to argue that this is about price rather than life misses the point. This not like negotiating on a house: if the asset becomes to hot to handle, or the process takes too long, the kidnappers may dispose of it, and that could mean a life lost.

Kidnap and ransom specialists don’t discuss what they do with the media – before, during or after a kidnap. The work is technically complex, fusing ethical, financial, cultural, communications and human challenges. So: imagine disarming a human time bomb live on television, with audience participation. Since working with them I have learned great respect for what they do, and their desire for secrecy, despite nearly having a fight with one of the most eminent practitioners early in my career. Don, you were right and I was wrong.


White House attacks British press

May 30, 2009

It does not help matters for a journalist when the spokesman you are dealing with calls you a liar. Still worse if he believes your country’s press is congenitally incapable of telling the truth.

“Let’s just say if I wanted to look up, if I wanted to read a write-up of how Manchester United fared last night in the Champions League Cup, I might open up a British newspaper,” said Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary last week. “If I was looking for something that bordered on truthful news, I’m not entirely sure it’d be the first pack of clips I’d pick up.”

What accounts for this xenophobic outburst? The Daily Telegraph reported that photographs of alleged prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, the Iraqi prison, include images of apparent rape and sexual abuse by Americans. President Obama has refused to release these pictures. The Telegraph quotes Major General Antonio Taguba, the former army officer who conducted an inquiry into the jail: “These pictures show torture, abuse, rape and every indecency.”

Mr Gibbs doesn’t deny this; he just attacks the nationality of the media in question.

Now let’s now get too sanctimonious. The British press has its moments of truth and decency and courage, and its less valiant times. Some of it is made up and untrue. It has different news values to the US media (which assumes its own are universal), and different economics (which helps to explain the former).

This odd episode underlines that the British press in Washington has a curious status, somewhere in between a remote provincial nuisance and a star on the central stage. The British hack in Washington is, these days, accorded little or no access by the US government. The White House press office will not return calls, or if it does, too late to be of any use. Even if the US is dealing with a British issue, its government will frequently not bother to speak with the British press. The Brits come below any level of local US media. The UK embassy is terrified of upsetting its hosts and doesn’t much help.

There was a time when it was different – when UK correspondents could expect to be on first name terms with many of the US political elite, at home in their summer places and on their tennis courts, but that was thirty years ago.

Yet the British press matters in Washington in a way that other foreign media doesn’t. It is partly the language: Americans read the British media online. And many like it, since it is often more outspoken, critical, argumentative (and usually better written). This is partly a question of taste, partly of politics. The Telegraph has an American readership because it is conservative, for example,  just as the Guardian has staked a claim to be the global medium for the liberal-left. A good US scoop by a British journalist will be round the world by the time the hack is out of bed the next day, including in the US.

So why does Gibbs get cross? Because it hurts. He knows that the Telegraph has a good story, and that he can’t deny the central point: what the guy says. And he knows it is a detailed report with telling identifiers that mean it can’t easily be knocked down. And he knows it is half way around the world and the damage is done. He will be under pressure to deal with a difficult irritant, and he can’t deny the story, which would be the only thing that matters. So what does he do? He plays the man, not the ball – attacks the journalists. And to make it all the worse, he has a go at the nation, not just the journalist or the paper. British journalists are liars.

In another country, the British embassy would stand up for itself and criticise a government that was seeking to muzzle criticism and attacking journalist for telling the truth. Not here. Xenophobia is permitted at the expense of the British.

Who wins in this nasty dispute? The Telegraph. Here is a comment by the paper’s Washington correspondent, Toby Harnden. Gibbs should apologise; he won’t, because the White House doesn’t.


Afghan fixers under fire

March 19, 2009

The Taliban has reportedly begun to target “fixers,” the local assistants that are essential to functioning in Afghanistan. These reports come after the shooting of Javed “Jojo” Azamy in Kandahar. He was an Afghan freelance cameraman, reporter and “fixer” for the Canadian media.

“In a report released this month, the France-based group Reporters without Borders said that Afghan journalists generally are facing growing threats, attacks and kidnappings at the hands of the insurgents,” reports Canada’s National Post. “The Islamist fighters have long been eager to use the media to disseminate their message, but may be upset with the more skeptical tack being taken by many Afghan journalists of late, Vincent Brossel, the organization’s Asia director, said from Paris.”

If this is true, it is a blow to international journalism. The reality of life in many places is that without a fixer, life can be nasty, brutish and short. TV especially is heavily reliant on fixers: they organise logistics, find and conduct interviews, handle relations with local communities and in general smooth the path for Westerners in difficult surroundings. Many are journalists in their own right, though they get little recognition.

Aaron Rockett has made a film about fixers in Afghanistan: see a clip here from CNN. Fixers are just as important in the rest of the Middle East, including Gaza: see a clip about their work here. They are by no means uncontroversial: in some places, critics complain they distort the news (of course they have their own views: they are human beings). This piece by an American correspondent gives a fairly rounded view.

The death of Azamy is a reminder that whatever their flaws, these guys take great risks. The Frontline Club in London has a Fixers Fund for the families of fixers killed or injured while working with international media.  You can find out more here.

Fixers often get caught in the crossfire between the communities they come from, the journalists they work for and the armed forces on both sides: literal and metaphorical crossfire. The Canadian Press reports of Azamy that he had worked for US Special Forces in 2001; for Canadian media; and had been detained by the US for nearly a year as an enemy combatant in 2007-8. “No explanation, either for his detention or his release, was ever proffered.”