Archive for March, 2010
‘Goodbye Foreigners’ – or how this year’s Orwell Prize longlist brings home the importance of foreign reporting
At a time when foreign bureaux are a luxury few news organizations can afford, when foreign staff correspondents are being let go, and when our perspective of foreigners is too often shaped by headlines scapegoating migrants for all our social ills, it’s good to be reminded of the eloquence and importance of good foreign reporting.
Good foreign reporting not only gives us an insight into another country, it enables us to reflect better on our own. Good foreign reporting can also be a tonic, helping one realize that it is really not so bad here after all. And, good foreign reporting can provide empathy, something sorely needed in our digitized, globalized world.
This year’s Orwell Prize Longlist pulls us out of our domesticity into the politics of compromise in South Africa, the plight of immigrants and the homeless in Japan, the rehabilitation of child soldiers in the Congo, Tamil civilians killed by shelling by the Sri Lankan government, Mumbaikars reaction to the terrorist attacks of November 2008, and Russians coming to terms – or not – with recession.
In one of a number of beautifully observed pieces, John Arlidge of the Sunday Times illustrates the continuing compromises of South African politics through the friendship of Nelson Mandela and Sol Kerzner. Kerzner was ‘one of the richest and most despised South Africans’ of the apartheid era yet now stands arm in arm with Mandela, discussing how to revive the country’s economy.
‘“You never really leave Africa, not in your heart,” says Kerzner, as he steps onto African soil. It’s a few days before Mandela is due to check in to the One&Only, and Kerzner has just landed in his £25m Bombardier Challenger 604 jet at the city’s private airport. But he’s not stopping long. Captain Jeremy Westoby soon fires up the jet, call sign MSKZL, and races back along the runway. Kerzner is heading east, bumping through the late-morning thermals that rise from the Karoo like giant dust devils, to the place where it all began’ (‘Africa’s heart and Sol‘).
Peter Hitchens, another longlisted journalist, reports for the Mail on Sunday from the Czech Republic, Canada, and China, amongst others. From Japan – a country grossly under-reported in the UK – he describes what happens when people fall off the edge of ‘this perfect seeming planet’. ‘In Japan,’ Hitchens writes, ‘if you slip or miss your chance, you might tumble all the way to the bottom – and here it is’.
‘The Hamamatsu labour exchange, like all such offices in Japan, bears the jaunty name of Hello Work. But it might equally well be called Goodbye Foreigners. It has two separate queues where the jobless can sign on: one for Japanese citizens and one for the rest’ (‘Welcome to rock bottom, Hitchens-san‘).
Mary Riddell went to the Congo, the dark heart of Africa, for the Telegraph, where she interviewed its president Joseph Kabila as well as child soldiers and mothers stranded by war:
‘Niclette cannot go home to her parents in Masisi, 30 miles away, because she is now the property of her husband. ‘He gave my father and mother three goats as a dowry when we married, which means they cannot take me back.’ So she waits here, unsure what will happen to her or her child. ‘I hope my baby will have the life of my parents, who grow beans and manioc,’ she says’ (‘Rebuilding the lives of Congo’s child soldiers‘).
Catherine Philp, reporting for The Times from Sri Lanka, was unwilling to accept the government’s claims that it did not harm any civilians in its siege of the Tamil Tigers. So, despite its efforts to exclude the media – Philps uncovered evidence of that thousands of civilians were killed by the shelling:
‘The Sri Lankan authorities have insisted that their forces stopped using heavy weapons on April 27 and observed the no-fire zone where 100,000 Tamil men, women and children were sheltering. They have blamed all civilian casualties on Tamil Tiger rebels concealed among the civilians Aerial photographs, official documents, witness accounts and expert testimony tell a different story’ (‘The hidden massacre: Sri Lanka’s final offensive against Tamil Tigers‘).
Jonathan Foreman (Standpoint) was in Mumbai during the terrorist attacks and captures the eerie quiet of the city for much the stand-off:
‘I cross to the other side of the peninsula to the Oberoi-Trident complex, a hotel that spreads across several buildings. Here there are cameras set up and a bigger crowd on the sea wall. The hotel is lit up but there are no fires blazing and no troops standing guard with the handful of police who shout if you go too far past the line of fire trucks. There is no rope keeping everyone back, no bank of fierce paramilitary or military men of the kind you would find at such a scene in Britain or America. Young female Indian newsreaders look bored between takes – it’s the women who get the nightshift. It’s as if everyone’s taking a break from the crisis until morning’ (‘Four days of terror in Mumbai‘).
Arkady Ostrovsky (The Economist, Foreign Policy) charts Russians’ response to the recession, and how it is starting to break the ‘social contract… premised on an authoritarian state delivering rising incomes and resurgent power’:
‘…as financial resources become scarcer, it is likely that an increasingly desperate Kremlin will resort to greater violence and repression to maintain its splintering social contract. This was vividly demonstrated in December during riots in Vladivostok, in Russia’s Pacific Far East… The brutality with which these units dispersed the demonstrators shocked even the local police’ (‘Reversal of fortune‘).
‘State TV in the USSR did not report the clashes’ Ostrovsky writes, and neither did much Western media. Not because they were not important but because there was no-one there. Even those that did report from Russia (such as Isabel Gorst for the Financial Times and Tom Parfitt for the Guardian) could only report second hand since they were reporting from Moscow – 10 time zones west of Vladivostok.
And therein lies the problem, who will bear witness on the ground in the future? If it is ‘citizen journalists’, will they feel the same obligation to verify sources, to dig around official accounts, and to put themselves in physical danger as these journalists have? Perhaps.
And what happens if these things do not get reported at all? Well, the response to the lack of coverage of riots in Vladivostok might give us a clue:
‘When protesters realized that state television failed to report the clashes, their rage, initially aimed against a particular economic measure, turned against the entire political system’.
Long may good reporting – ‘from the ground up’ in Martha Gellhorn’s evocative phrase
Other longlisted journalists include: Ian Cobain (The Guardian), Amelia Gentleman (The Guardian), Paul Lewis (The Guardian), Anthony Loyd (The Times), Hamish McRae (The Independent), Cathy Newman (Channel 4 News), David Reynolds (BBC), Robert Verkaik (The Independent, The Independent on Sunday)
For a complete list of the Orwell Prize longlists – journalism, books, and blogs – go to http://www.theorwellprize.co.uk/the-award/long-books.aspx?year=1736.
The Media Standards Trust runs the Orwell Prize with the Director, Professor Jean Seaton, and with the support of the Media Standards Trust, Political Quarterly and the Orwell Trust.
[A version of this article was first published at PBS MediaShift IdeasLab]
On a news organization’s list of priorities, publishing articles as ‘linked data’ probably comes slightly above remembering to turn the computer monitors off in the evening and slightly below getting a new coffee machine.
It shouldn’t, and I’ll list 10 reasons why.
Before I do I should briefly explain what I mean by ‘linked data’. Linked data is a way of publishing information so that it can easily – and automatically – be linked to other, similar data on the web. For example, if I refer to ‘Paris’ in a news article it’s not immediately apparent to search engines whether that is Paris – France, Paris – Texas, or Paris Hilton (or indeed another Paris entirely). If published in linked data Paris would be linked to another reference point that would make clear which one it referred to (e.g. to the entry for Paris, France on dbpedia – the structured data version of wikipedia).
Until a short while ago I was reasonably clueless as to both the meaning and the value of linked data. I’m still far from being an expert, but enough people who are far smarter than me have convinced me that it’s worth trying. This was especially the case a couple of months back, at a News Linked Data Summit that we (the Media Standards Trust) organized with the BBC (which you can read about on a previous blog).
So, 10 reasons why news organizations should bump linked data up their priority list:
1. Linked data can boost SEO (search engine optimization)
People who tell you they can boost your SEO usually sound like witch doctors, telling you to tag all sorts of hocus pocus that doesn’t make rational sense or just seems like cynical populism. But at its simplest, SEO works through links. The more something is linked to, the higher it will come in people’s search results. So publishing content as linked data should, quite naturally, increase its SEO. A great example of this is the BBC’s natural history output. Type ‘Lion’ into Google and, chances are, a BBC linked data page will come in the first 10 results. This never used to happen until the BBC started tagging their natural history content as linked data.
2. Linked data allows others to link to your site much more easily
The world wide web is, more and more, being powered by algorithms; the Google search algorithm is perhaps the most obvious. But most sites now take advantage of some mechanized intelligence. ‘If you liked reading this, you might enjoy this…’ sort of thing. Problem is, algorithms – though intelligent – aren’t that intelligent. They have trouble telling the difference between, for example, Martin Moore (me), Martin Moore (kitchens), and Daniel Martin Moore (the Kentucky singer songwriter). But use linked data and they can. And once they can, sites like the BBC can link externally much more easily and intelligently.
3. Helps you build services based on your content
As it becomes increasingly difficult to get people to pay for news, so news organizations will need to build services based on their news – and other content – that people will pay for. You could, for example, provide a service that enabled people to compare schools in different areas, based on inspection reports, league tables, news reports, and parents’ stories. Creating services to do this is lots and lots easier if content is already made machine-readable through linked data.
4. Enables other people to build services based on your content – that you could profit from
Other people often have ideas you haven’t thought of. Other people also often have the space and time to experiment that you don’t have. Give them the opportunity to build stuff through linked data and they might come up with ‘killer apps’ that make you money. iphone apps anyone?
5. Allows you to link direct to source
You’re a news organization. Your brand is based partly on how much people trust the stuff you publish. Publish stuff in linked data and it enables you to link directly back to the report / research or statistics on which it was based – especially if that source is itself linked data (like http://data.gov.uk). That way, if you cite a crime statistic, say, you can link it directly back to the original source.
6. Helps journalists with their work
As a news organisation publishes more of its news content in linked data, so it can start providing its journalists with more helpful information to inform the articles they’re writing, and to make suggestions as to what else to link to when it’s published.
7. Throws bait over the paywall
Once content is behind a paywall it becomes invisible – unless you pay (that’s sort of the point). This is the same for joe public as for a search engine. But how are you, joe public, supposed to work out whether you want to pay for something if it’s invisible? Publish in linked data and there will be enough visible bits of information to help people work out if they want to pay for it. [This will probably be less of a deal with big search engines like Google, but more relevant to other search engines and third party services. Mind you, one of these bit players will, most likely, be the next Google or Facebook].
8. Makes data associated with your content dynamic
There is an ever growing mountain of information on the net that never gets updated. Pages devoted to football teams whose last score was added in 2006. Topic pages about political issues that haven’t seen a new story in months. But if those pages were filled with linked data, and linked to others that were too, they’d be automatically updated – rising from the dead like Frankenstein without you having to do diddly squat.
9. Start defining news events in linked data now and you could become a ‘canonical reference point’ (CRP)
What the heck is a canonical reference point, I hear you ask. Well, it’s a little like a virtual Grand Central Station. It’s a junction point for linked data; a hub which hundreds or even thousands of other sites link to as a way of helping to define their references. Examples of such hubs include: http://musicbrainz.org for music and musicians, data.gov.uk for UK gov stuff, http://dbpedia.org for almost anything. If you’re a news organization, why would you not want to be a hub?
10. Raises the platform for all
A web of linked data is a more intelligent web. A more mature and less superficial web. Not quite a semantic web, but getting there.
Of course, some of these benefits will come disproportionately to first movers (as with the BBC’s natural history pages). Which is exactly why news organizations, who have previously been pretty slow when it comes to web innovation, need to get their skates on.
More on linked data:
‘Linked data is blooming – why you should care’ on the ever readable Read Write Web, May 2009 (325 retweets to date)
A graphic of the linked data web: http://linkeddat
Tim Berners-Lee talking about linked data at TED 2009
My blog about our linked data summit
“London ownership has invaded the provinces… and there is a steady growth of the syndicated leading article, the foulest abortion in journalism” 
Not the words of a contemporary New Labour ideologue but of the English journalist, politician and radical Michael Foot, who died yesterday aged 96, speaking in the 1940s. Foot spoke with benefit of experience, having already had well over a decade’s experience as a writer, an editor and a pamphleteer before taking his seat in the House in 1945.
Soon after joining parliament Foot lamented the consolidation of the local press under corporate ownership, having seen the number of newspapers shrink by almost a quarter since 1921 (from 169 in 1921 to 128 in 1948). “The process of monopoly is not receding. It is getting worse” he told the House.
One wonders what language he would have used today, when four newspaper groups control three quarters of the local press (Trinity Mirror, Johnston Press, Newsquest and DMGT).
And given that the Conservatives have made clear their desire to allow more consolidation, it is odd that Michael Foot has no parliamentary successor to rage against the centralisation and corporatisation of local news.
Nor did Foot simply rail from the back benches. So concerned was he at the state of the press that, in 1946, he seconded a motion for a Royal Commission on the Press, to look into the growth of monopolistic tendencies in the control of the newspapers and constrain the influence of proprietors in defence of journalistic freedom (echoes of the 2008 House of Lords report on ownership of news?).
A Royal Commission was then set up in 1947 and its recommendations – made in 1949 – eventually led to the establishment of the General Council of the Press, the precursor to today’s Press Complaints Commission.
Foot’s subsequent relationship with the press was, it has to be said, mixed. He was attacked and lampooned continuously as leader of the Labour party, particularly for his appearance (earning him the nickname ‘Worzel Gummidge’ after the fictional scarecrow of that name). He won a libel case against the Sunday Times, of which he gave part of the proceeds to the Tribune newspaper (which he had previously edited). Yet his heart was, his wife Jill Craigie said, ‘really in newspapers and writing’.
Perhaps he would have had a wry smile as certain newspapers, that previously excoriated him, today hail him as ‘the last link to a more heroic political age’ (The Daily Telegraph) and ‘one of the last great political figures of the wartime generation’ (The Daily Mail).
He was certainly one of those rare things, a journalist who could do politics and a politician who could do journalism.
 From Mervyn Jones’ biography of Michael Foot, p.150-151