Apr 12

BBC News and what the future looks like from the top floor

I listened to a briefing recently by a senior person at BBC News. I heard it on background, so I can’t name the individual but you can take it that this person knows a lot about a newsgathering operation which employs, worldwide, 6000 people. The world’s largest, so far. A few snippets:

  • Chinese state broadcasting is set to become the world’s biggest newsgatherer. We don’t know when. In parts of Africa, people don’t see the Chinese as having any agenda or slant. The BBC is sometimes seen as having a post-colonial British agenda.
  • In Britain, approval of the BBC diminishes the further you go from London.
  • The BBC cuts programme is known as “Delivering Quality First” or “DQF”. In the newsroom this is rendered as “Duck Quick or you’re F*****.”
  • We may be cutting back on two on-screen presenters on the news channel but we’re re-appointing political reporters at local radio stations. In local politics coverage, papers are “nowhere”.
  • The first five bi-lingual (i.e. not English mother tongue) correspondents reporting across the network are just about to start work.
  • The audience is pretty bored with the primary campaign in the US presidential. We kid ourselves about the level of interest. The Radio 4 audience is actually pretty hostile to the US.
  • We have a dilemma about local coverage: the BBC Trust stopped plans to do that. We’re not in a good place.
  • When the Leveson Inquiry began, the BBC began its own internal investigation. Pretty uncomfortable having your own records gone through. As far as I know, the Daily Mirror haven’t yet done their own inquiry.

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Dec 11

Places, people and laws to remember from 2011

This blog’s author is of a buoyant, optimistic cast of mind. I mention this only in case it isn’t already obvious. My general view of the “crisis” in journalism in Europe and the US (not, please note, the rest of the world) is that while the business model for printed daily papers may be in deep doo-doo, journalism and news will find ways not merely to survive but to flourish and improve.

But there are journalists and writers in places for whom 2011 was a year of threats, jail terms, violence and misery. They should not be forgotten This is just a quick selection of those people who deserve to be remembered at the passing of the year – and the governments who deserve to be shamed for what they have done.

  • The Ethiopian government jailed two Swedish television journalists the other day for eleven years apiece on “terrorism” charges.
  • Wondering why you haven’t heard much from Bahrain recently? This despatch from Reporters Without Borders, written in restrained and careful language, will tell you why. They lock up bloggers and journalists, intimidate others and exclude foreign reporters they don’t approve of. Do not forget that in April the founder of the opposition newspaper Al-Wasat, Karim Fakhrawi, was taken into custody when his paper had been shut and he died in custody a week later. His death remains unexplained and no one has been held to account.
  • There are many things to worry the Chinese government nowadays, but they remain terrified of the stubborn handful of men and women who simply refuse to stop speaking their mind. The moment that the strength of the Arab Spring became clear, many of these people began being questioned and detained. Two of those who vanished into jail in the spring, Chen Xi and Chen Wei were given sentences of 10 and 9 years respectively just before Christmas.  They thought and wrote the wrong things.
  • On a quite different level – because no actual curtailment of freedom of expression seems yet to have taken place – is the developing disaster for the news media in Hungary (background here, latest developments here). I’m not enough of an expert on central Europe to know why Hungarian confidence in the the ordinary, boring-but-valuable institutions of democracy is so much more fragile than in neighbouring countries which also endured long decades of suffocation under communism and the Soviet Union. But it is.
  • And let’s never forget Russia, where the manipulation and threats have been normal for a long time. As ever, it’s always worst outside the big cities where the tourists go and the foreign correspondents live. One small, grim example here.

But I did read one cheerful scrap from Russia this holiday. In Dagestan, east of Chechnya there is a newspaper called Chernovik. This name translates into English as “rough draft” and is, I think, the best and most honest name for a newspaper I have heard for some time. I came across it in David Remnick’s superb New Yorker essay on Vladimir Putin and what has happened to news, information and journalism in Russia during his rule.

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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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Mar 11

The information spaces in Vietnam

When people reflect on the effect of modern communications on a communist state, they tend to think first of China and its efforts to limit information reaching its citizens by digital means. But there is another communist state in Asia wrestling with the same problems: Vietnam, where I spent last week.

Like China, Vietnam has opened up to western business and the many organs of the party have plunged enthusiastically into capitalism. The army is big in mobile phones. This loosening has only worked up a point: inflation is rising, rigid inefficiencies survive and corruption continues.

The local media discusses very little of this. The only sources on what is going on inside the power structure are rumour and decoding the stilted formulas of the official press. There’s a knowledgeable analysis of the media here – but the fact that it’s written under a pseudonym tells you something about the party’s readiness to expel foreign correspondents it doesn’t like.

The state’s power is felt in a lighter and subtler way than in China. You’re in a taxi in one of Hanoi’s battered and dusty streets and suddenly you pass a building which stands out for its neatness: railings freshly painted, gravel swept, armed sentries who look like they mean business. A polished black Mercedes is just passing under the striped barrier. That little glimpse reminds you that inside the government machine is another machine, the party, which actually decides.

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Sep 10

China’s media and “soft power”

Hat-tip to Richard Sambrook for pointing me to this superb analysis of the Chinese media, its layers, ambitions and limits by a professor at one of the Hong Kong universities. I may not be alone in finding the Chinese media’s growth hard to see clearly; this piece makes sense of the combination of (huge) state power and outlets that belong to a more loosely controlled zone.

While on the theme of China’s soft power ambitions across the globe, here’s a background piece from a couple of years ago by Mark Leonard in Prospect magazine. He went to China to talk to its policy wonks, assuming that they were a handful of dried-out party functionaries in back rooms. What he found suprised him.