05
Dec 14

The investigative reporters who do it quietly, but very well

I’ve spent the past few years being told repeatedly that investigative journalism is under terrible, terminal threat. The business crisis of newspapers and commercial pressures have gutted investigative teams and dumbed down the very idea. Owners and publishers don’t like it. Across the world, the future for penetrating and patient reporting of what powerful people don’t want revealed is bleak.

I’m pleased to say that this is doom-laden nonsense. Philanthropic money continues to flow into the most difficult and demanding investigations both in the US (the founding donation to ProPublica and Pierre Omidyar’s $250m being the most spectacular examples). Mainstream media continue to strip away layers of concealment. The British Press, Foreign Press Association and James Cameron awards – all in London within the last few weeks – have recognised investigative reporting by, among others, the Sunday Times, the Guardian, The Times, Channel 4’s Despatches and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (declaration: I’m a trustee). There are few weeks of the year when a conference boosting the skills or morale of investigative reporters doesn’t start somewhere. Today in London it’s the Logan Symposium (foundation funded).

But there is one example of the health of investigative journalism rarely mentioned and I think it deserves to be. I first came across a clue when I was in Hong Kong last year and had lunch with an old friend who brought an extra guest to the meal. This Australian worked, he said, for Reuters and I asked him what he did. He was an investigative reporter and I asked if he specialised in any subject. He did long-form reporting, he said, on the army of the Peoples’ Republic of China.

Now the Chinese army is very large, very powerful and no doubt rich and fertile territory for investigations. But I was struck that Reuters, with its roots as a global news agency, should be deploying investigative reporters on that kind of scale.

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13
Feb 12

Ecuador’s President Correa and the press: it just goes on getting worse

I drew attention a week or two back to the unsavoury campaign of intimidation being waged by President Rafael Correa of Ecuador against journalists whose reporting and opinions he doesn’t like.

As a president with five years in post after his three predecessors were ejected without a voter ever being consulted, Correa has some success to his credit. But it seems to be going to his head. He has just won court judgements which fine two journalists a million dollars each for insulting the dignity of both the presidency and the country. The case details are laid out here. One of the journalists, Juan Carlos Calderón, described the judgement as “disproportionate, absurd and irrational”.

 


11
Nov 11

Rusbridger’s Orwell lecture: hacking away at the truth

The twittersphere sent round plenty of links to last night’s Orwell lecture by the Guardian’s editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger, so signalling its importance is hardly needed. But I’m mentioning it to urge you to read the full text.

Besides being an excellent read, the lecture is in two parts. The first is the story of the hacking story, with plenty of justified emphasis laid on how difficult it was for the Guardian to get traction for a story which others didn’t, for a long time, want to touch. The second half is Rusbridger’s first outline of how he thinks the press regulation system should be rewritten after the Leveson inquiry. I have a few reservations about some of what he proposes but putting the “public interest” issue front and centre is dead right. I’ll come back to those arguments at a later date, but for now read the whole lecture.


11
Jun 11

Miscellany: on getting used to things being free, Mamet, closure on a reporter’s death and more

I’ve haven’t for some time rounded up a diverse collection links in a weekend post because I noticed that the readership of this blog falls to its lowest on a Saturday and Sunday.

But I’ve also been noticing that my posts have quite a “long tail” and get looked at some time after they’ve gone up. So here’s some varied weekend or weekday reading. There is absolutely no common theme.
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24
Mar 11

What next for Wikileaks?

Did you think that Wikileaks was last year’s drama? Think again. In the next few weeks, there’s going to be a lot of Wikileaks about. Julian Assange’s own book is due for publication at the end of the first week in April. Whatever else may be said of Assange, his ability to detonate high explosive in public life is beyond dispute.

For those reading this blog in Britain or the US, it’s worth remembering that the gradual disclosure of the US diplomatic cables continues piece by piece around the world. I was in India last week, where Wikileaks’ editing-and-publication deal is with The Hindu and the open disclosures from a set of just over 5000 cables set off a storm. Among other things a member of the staff of the American embassy in Delhi reported being shown cash which he was told was to be used to bribe members of parliament to support the government in a close vote in 2008.

Fascination with the spectacle or with the implications of Wikileaks runs as strongly as ever. Is this what journalism is going to be like in the future? Does Wikileaks signal that in the digital era relations between government and the governed will be changed? These were the kind of questions kicked around at a seminar convened by Polis director Charlie Beckett at the LSE last night, when I lectured on Wikileaks at the Xavier Institute of Communication in Mumbai (slides here) and in a draft paper by Yochai Benkler of Harvard’s Berkman Centre. A few points to watch:

  • Wikileaks holds a quarter of a million US diplomatic cables. With only a few (but significant) exceptions, a relatively small number have been published under the supervision of established media, who staff have redacted sensitive names. One person with good knowledge of Wikileaks estimates that something above 5000 have now been released. Perhaps, he speculated, the total published via major media outlets might be 15,000 in all. There’s only a certain number of newspapers and magazines in the world with the staff and the interest to go through and “redact” such bulky material.
  • All of which begs the question about what happens to the remaining 235,000 cables, many of which may contain sensitive names and details (of US informants, for example). This is apparently under discussion inside Wikileaks, with voices in favour of complete, unredacted release and voices against.
  • Quite apart from very likely getting people killed, the unedited release of such a cache would provoke a completely new kind of reaction. That assumption is based on the US reaction to the limited and relatively careful release so far: a wide array of government opinions (Benkler is very good on the dissenting opinions of Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who quietly insisted that the damage to the US was being hyped; Gates has of course announced his retirement and has nothing to lose), private-sector attempts to harm Wikileaks and political figures calling for Assange to be either prosecuted or killed. Would the American government unplug the internet? Could it? The consensus on the second is a resounding “Yes”.
  • Wikileaks has now spawned many imitators, local and global. Will they go commercial and become more like exsting media operations? Or will such sites, whose key asset is their digital indestructibility and ability to hide a source, act as a leaking route of last resort, a compliment and accompaniement to more conventional media?
  • There seemed to be general agreement that governments would now bolt the stable door. Documents of the kind that Wikileaks has surfaced would be harder to extract and seen by fewer people on the inside in the first place. The ship of state may have sprung a leak, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be patched.
  • That’s all fine in liberal societies to the west of here, said one Indian student in Mumbai. But is it right for Wikileaks to be tolerated by open societies when those societies are up against aggressive, ruthless closed societies? I began on a pompous answer about how liberal societies have to take risks that closed societies don’t, stopped and asked him if he had any particular closed society in mind. China, he said firmly.

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12
Feb 11

Wikileaks and Assange: two books

I’ve reviewed the first two books of what will be a literary cascade on Wikileaks in today’s Times (£): the account of Julian Assange’s collaboration with The Guardian by David Leigh and Luke Harding and the inside account from Daniel Domscheit-Berg of his time as Assange’s lieutenant.

The former is largely devoted to the clinching and subsequent collapse of the cooperation between Assange and The Guardian. Domscheit-Berg’s book, driven mostly by pique, is a lengthy complaint about Assange’s dictatorial methods. Both books include useful background on the early origins of Wikileaks. Both books underline that Wikileaks is Julian Assange, no more and no less.

I have discovered that writing blogposts (or reviews) about Julian Assange puts you in the line of fire from his passionate devotees if not from Assange himself. I’ve already been called a “supercilious weasel” and there’s probably worse to come. So if you’re new to this blog you’ll find earlier posts by entering “Assange” in the search box to the right of this post, including my reflections on his two appearances at City University last year. The first of those, much the more intriguing of the two, was before the major leaks of 2010 began.

A few offcuts from the books that couldn’t be squeezed into the review: Continue reading →


24
Jan 11

History’s rough first draft – and the story of a “pseudo-event”

John Naughton’s column in The Observer yesterday mentioned something I’d missed in by Peter Maas in the New Yorker: a superb dissection of the now-notorious “statue-toppling” image captured as American troops rolled into Baghdad in 2003. This meticulous reconstruction should be read by anyone tempted to opine about media literacy, news, pseudo-events, spin and related topics.

By paying close attention to cause and effect, Maas underlines and confirms a complaint which started circulating on the day that pictures of Saddam’s statue being hauled down by American marines: that the event did not symbolise any kind of popular feeling by Iraqis. There were very few of them there.

But Maas also shows something which will disappoint those for whom this episode confirms every worst fear about the manipulation of international public opinion by the US government. No one organised or orchestrated the statue’s destruction. It just happened in the heady buzz of the unexpectedly – and as it turned out, misleadingly – easy victory won by the Americans.

But it made a neat, easy-to-grasp image which captured a lot of unrealistic hopes in one image. It zipped round the world and began creating myths on its own. The picture acquired a power no one had tried to give it.


29
Nov 10

Wikileaks, Arab governments and new media

One early thought about the Wikileaks release of the US diplomatic cables. There’s been debate for years about the effect of new media on authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. Would satellite television, the internet or Facebook break the monopoly of power held by the Chinese communist party? Could bloggers laugh Hugo Chavez out of power?

The answers which slowly emerged to these questions showed a variety of effects. China’s rulers mounted a colossal effort, mostly successful so far, to restrict the political effects of peer-to-peer communication. In relatively open democracies, social media will make changes to political discourse but they don’t look drastic or sudden so far.

But the countries in which the effects of new media are going to be most dramatic and visible are those with traditional oligarchic media and limited democratic mechanisms. The rules which govern the political space in Arab societies are being put under severe strain.

Mainstream Arab media are now faced with a bulk load of awkward stories they might prefer to ignore or play down while the same material races round the developing Arab blogosphere. This is all explained with helpful links by Marc Lynch of Foreign Policy (I’m new to this blog and so cannot yet explain its mysterious subtitle: Abu Aardvark’s Middle East Blog). I think Lynch is exactly right, not least in focussing on the test for Al-Jazeera, based as it is Qatar, whose ruling family are likely to feature when the whole document dump has been fully searched.

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