25
Oct 10

Wikileaks and the Iraq warlogs

Three days after the release of almost 400,000 pieces of US Army data about Iraq between 2004 and 2009 it is already clear that what Wikileaks has done is a game-changer.

The leak will permanently alter how the Iraq war is seen: take this striking example from the Daily Telegraph. It may not shift the opinion figures on whether or not the war was worth starting in the first place. The detailed revelations are, I’d guess, less important than the massive accumulation of hard detail. Despite being reported in machine-prose, the logs paint an appallingly vivid picture of the careless brutality which flourishes not only in any war but particularly when an army is trying to work out counter-insurgency as it goes along.

Fiction could not compete with the surreal dialogue in which a helicopter pilot asks what he should do about suspects on the ground who are trying to surrender. The lawyer says they can’t surrender to a chopper, comes the reply. The helicopter with the callsign “Crazyhorse” blows the men to pieces.

As the experienced military commentator Robert Fox says, the axis of the information war has shifted. The public can now see the war with a sharpness and depth not possible before. (For the wider context of cyberwar read Seymour Hersh here and on military classification culture a Stratfor analyst here.)

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21
Sep 10

Panorama/BIJ: data journalism is scoopy

Panorama/BIJ: data journalism is scoopyDelighted to say that last night’s BBC TV Panorama on top public service salaries has caused plenty of ripples. The programme was a co-production with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, based at City University. (Declaration of interest: I’m a BIJ trustee). The programme can be seen for six days here, some of the coverage is here and here and commentary here.

There will be more high-profile work from the BIJ before long, but  this is probably the largest stone this new outfit has yet thrown in the pond. Its journalists only began work at the start of this year. Investigative reporting is never quick. The raw material for this inquiry is 38,000 lines of data and it was obtained by 2,400 freedom of information requests.

Much of the coverage has focussed on the BBC salaries – and it must have required some nerve for Panorama to have devoted so much airtime to yet more detail of how much top people at the Beeb earn. But the really interesting stuff seems to me to lie not with the outliers at the top, but with the mass in the middle. Leaving the special case of the BBC aside, does the public service really need thosee thousands of salaries lying somewhere between £100,ooo and £300,000? It’s hard to imagine that a ruthless audit would give them all a value-for-money clearance.


12
Jun 10

Weekend miscellany: Assange, Kenyan corruption, why is sport so huge, the missed banking story and Iran

I’m increasingly finding, as this blog finds its feet, that I reach the end of the working week with a bunch of links which I’d like to pass on but which don’t require much comment or elaboration. I’m going to try bundling them into a single post. From time to time these pieces will have already appeared in “What I’m Reading” (just to the right of here) but that feed often osbcures the real subject of something I’ve clipped into Delicious. What follows is an eclectic selection, so there’s no point in trying to pretend that there’s any common thread.

  • Fascinating drama now going on around Wikileaks as the US government goes after its founder Julian Assange. Some background here. A more recent summary from The Economist, containing an intriguing little hint from Pentagon Papers man Daniel Ellsberg.
  • I’ve been reading properly for the first time It’s Our Turn to Eat by Michela Wrong, the story of John Githongo, the man who exposed deep-seated, systemic corruption in the Kenyan political elite. The book is a superbly-written tragi-comedy: Githongo “exposed” a lot of appalling evidence but failed to dent the practice by which Kenyan ministers plunder the country’s treasury. But thanks to the depth of Wrong’s knowledge of her subject, the book is also a history of modern Kenya – and a very dispiriting chronicle at that. When Kenya’s tribal rivalries explode again, as Wrong predicts they surely will, reading this book will explain what is happening and why. Among her many qualities as a writer, Wrong is unafraid to take aim at conventional pieties. As they say in Texas, sacred cows make the best burgers.
  • Especially at World Cup you may occasionally wonder how sport, all sport, got so big. Because once upon a time, sport just wasn’t that huge a thing. When you don’t read much a subject – and I don’t read much about sport – you like an issue fully dealt with in a single place. This piece by Tim de Lisle from Intelligent Life is it.
  • Sometimes it takes a non-journalist to spot that journalists are asleep at the wheel. Not every document that emerges from the Bank of England is newsworthy or even comprehensible but the one spotted in this post was. As the perenially interesting MP Frank Field remarks here, this was not a story which either the Financial Times sor The Times ought to have missed.
  • A cluster of excellent stories from The Guardian on Iran at the first anniversary of last year’s stalled “green” revolution-that-wasn’t.

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06
Jun 10

Bureau of Investigative Journalism lifts off

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Britain’s answer to the American ProPublica and working out of City University, hit the ground running this weekend with the publication of its first story, a joint investigation with the British Medical Journal. The story revealed that a number of scientists who have advised the World Health Organisation on a possible flu pandemic have done paid work for drug firms who stood to benefit from WHO plans to deal with a major outbreak.

Harvey Fineberg, President of the Institute of Medicine in Washington and who chairs the WHO committee which reviews plans for the H1N1 virus, quickly released a statement saying that his commitee would be looking at this question when it next meets.

The story ran early on Al-Jazeera and was picked up quickly by The Guardian and dozens of others. A small milestone in the efforts to rebuild the strength of investigative journalism beyond mainstream new organisations. More scoops to follow. (Declaration: I’m a BIJ trustee.)


27
Apr 10

Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Yesterday saw the launch of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Britain’s counterpart to the philanthropically-funded outfits in the US which are attempting to supply the difficult, expensive long-form reporting which is in increasingly short supply in mainstream newspapers and broadcasting. (Disclosure: I’m a Bureau trustee).

The Pulitzer Prize awarded to the American investigative team ProPublica this month was a watershed in revealing to the world at large that cutting-edge journalism has moved outside the places where you’re accustomed to find it.

The Bureau has been made possible by a generous donation from David and Elaine Potter, but will stand or fall by its stories. Last night’s launch at City University London, where the Bureau is based, was a “soft launch” to mark the fact that the Bureau has begun work. Coverage here and here.  The real launch of course will be the publication or broadcast of its first stories.