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.


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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Jul 10

Wikileaks Afghan war logs: update

I was going to add these links to earlier posts about the Wikileaks Afghan war logs but interesting new items keep appearing, so I’ll group them here.

  • Will the disclosures bring the war to an earlier end? Alexander Cockburn of firstpost.co.uk asks whether disclosures end wars and, having consulted (that dispassionate and disinterested witness) Noam Chomsky, he concludes they rarely do.
  • The Times has developed its earlier story that the documents put the lives of Afghans in contact with the US or British forces at risk. Plus angry editorial. (Payment required for both). Update 30/7/10: free version of this angle from Channel 4 News.
  • It might be expected that one of the best in-context reflections on the significance  of the leaks would be from Ahmed Rashid, and so it proves (from The Spectator). The opening of this piece also sorts the new material from the not-so-new in the leaks.
  • In her comment on my post looking at the implications for journalism, my City University colleague and our Visiting Fellow Heather Brooke thinks I was underselling what we already do on data journalism.

Jul 10

Wikileaks and what they mean for journalism

The Wikileaks release of the Afghan war logs has unleashed a hail of commentary ranging from learned treatises on deciphering military jargon, through the morality of war to the implications for media and democracy. This post deals with what we’ve learnt about journalism. So far.

1. The unforeseen effects of quantity. Stories which begin with huge caches of data may begin with a bang (if the data is shown to mainstream media in advance, as here) but however they start, they will go on for a long time. A long tail of fresh stories will be fed by discoveries which can only, in the nature of the source material, be made slowly. The pace of the reporting changes; the sources of discoveries will be varied. We can see what one writer neatly termed the “sheer weight of failure” but we can’t see many detailed patterns until more work is done.

The estimates of what percentage of the logs have been trawled by whom vary. Two per cent? Five? Wikileaks said that documents had been witheld to protect individuals at risk. Did that mean that Wikileakers had been through 100% of the total? The Times this morning carried a story (can only be seen with payment) saying the raw documents did put Afghans at risk and suggesting that the screening was less than complete.

But whatever the exact extent of anyone’s knowledge, every conclusion about this is provisional  (and that includes my judgement in the post immediately below this on the Pentagon Papers comparison).

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Jul 10

Assange, Wikileaks and the war logs

Are the Wikileaks Afghanistan “war logs” as big as the Pentagon Papers leak about the war in Vietnam in 1971? At first sight, clearly not.

Daniel Ellsberg

As the Pentagon Paper leaker himself, Daniel Ellsberg, gently pointed out, the Pentagon study had been a high-level, candid history which revealed the extent of government dishonesty about the war. Some analysts of that period concluded that the impact of the Pentagon Papers on public opinion at the time was in the damage the documents did to the government’s credibility, rather than in changing opinions about the war itself. The fact that the documents tended to support the view that the war was unwinnable had less effect than the revelations of large-scale lying to the public: people had already mostly made up their mind about whether the war was winnable or not.

Little of this applies the 92,000 documents in the war logs – as far as we know so far. The picture painted by the logs is rich in detail, but short on surprise. Civilians get killed and the military are reluctant to acknowledge it, secret military units try to kill Taleban leaders (and often fail), Pakistani spooks help the Taleban, the Taleban seem to have surface-to-air missiles (not clear how many or how effective) and, generally, the armies involved don’t give the public the full picture. War is ugly and messy; innocent people are killed. It may be useful for the record to have this confirmed in detail and that detail may well shift opinion further against the war, but it’s hard to describe these as revelations.

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Jul 10

Journalism in truly tough conditions

As we discuss, deliberate and tweet our current anxieties about pixels and paywalls we’re always liable to lose sight of journalism’s genuinely tough stuff. Two vivid examples have crossed my path in the last few days.

First a beautifully written piece in Granta’s new issue by Janine di Giovanni, who covered the siege of Sarajevo for The Times fifteen years ago, on her return to the city and her bitter-sweet encounters with the people she knew in that different time under fire. (Di Giovanni is talking about her experience this evening at the LSE in London: details here. Granta has also just launched its online archive.)

The second is a Q & A with Alexei Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of the independent Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy. The interview is a gripoing insight into what it is like to try to preserve a fragile peace with authorities who have little time or interest in free news media. I once described the Russian government’s technique for dealing with the media as “predatory manipulation”. Venediktov tells us what dealing with predators every day feels like.

That interview is in print in Index on Censorship’s new magazine edition, web version here.