Archive for the ‘Orwell prize’ tag
‘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.
Anonymity in reporting did not start with blogging. But anonymous writing has exploded since the arrival of the web. Whether it is blogs, comments below blogs, comments beneath comment pieces or articles, or indeed articles themselves, anonymity – or in most cases pseudonyms – has characterized much of this first phase of democratic self-publishing.
There are certainly downsides to anonymity. Not knowing who has written something deprives comments and blogs of context. It creates another hurdle for the reader to climb to establish a piece’s credibility. It can relieve the author of feelings of responsibility. This can make the writer feel freer to write whatever they want, which can also lead him/her to extend their language or their accusations further than they might were their identity known.
There are also some big upsides to anonymity. One of these is the remarkable flowering of many new voices on the internet. This explosion of new, previously unheard voices is not only a good thing for political writing – as recognised by this year’s special Orwell Prize for blogging – but a good thing for society and for public understanding. It is part of the reinvention of journalism. Previously, people had to take their stories to a professional journalist and rely on that journalist, and his/her publication, to publish. This is no longer the case. They can publish it themselves.
Enormous numbers of people have taken up this opportunity. At BlogPulse’s last count there were 110,175,548 blogs published on the net. In the UK, there are blogs about care working (like Tanya Corbett’s), about magistrates (like The law West of Ealing Broadway), about local politics (like Bob Piper’s), and about driving an ambulance (like Random Acts of Reality).
But we are still at the very early stages of this reinvention. As the Media Standards Trust discovered with the 87 entries to this year’s Orwell Prize for Blogging (we, the Media Standards Trust – run the Orwell Prize with Political Quarterly and the Orwell Trust, but have no role in the judging), some blogs have a way to go before they could be said to have achieved Orwell’s aim of making political writing into an art. And there are clearly many unanswered questions about the responsibilities of bloggers to their work, to their colleagues, to those they work with and to the public.
Night Jack’s blog about his experiences as a policeman, which he submitted to this year’s special Orwell Prize for Blogging, was – the judges unanimously agreed – ‘wonderful’ and a clear winner. In their judgment ‘’The insight into the everyday life of the police that Jack Night’s wonderful blog offered was – everybody felt – something which only a blog could deliver, and he delivered it brilliantly’. Their decision was subsequently welcomed by many others. In an editorial The Guardian wrote that although Night Jack had stopped blogging after receiving the prize, ‘what is already there should be read by anyone who has a view on policing… This is life as the police see it. Read it’. His blogs not only illuminated the daily grind of a policeman, but shed light on the legal and judical process – something that has sadly disappeared from most newspapers with the decline of court reporting.
Night Jack was careful to disguise his own identity, and that of the people and cases he blogged about. He even stopped blogging having won the prize, conscious that his increased profile would make it impossible to continue. He did not seek to make any money from his blogs – then or since. He did not come to the awards ceremony. He donated his £3,000 prize money to the Police Benevolent Fund.
Then this week, more than two months after Night Jack stopped blogging, The Times published his real name, his picture, the police force in which he worked, and the name of one of the people in a case about which he wrote.
The Times justified its actions by suggesting that it was exposing the malpractice of a police officer. It did not say anything he had written was inaccurate, nor did it explain the public interest in publishing his real name – as opposed simply to telling the police force for which he worked (which it did) and letting them take disciplinary action (which they are). Why did it then need to publish it to an audience of millions? By publishing his identity the paper has not only prevented the continuation of the Night Jack blog (in its previous form), but significantly raised the risks of others who may be writing, or thinking about writing, from the frontline of public life.
By taking the decision to expose Night Jack The Times has almost certainly deprived us of voices that would otherwise have spoken out. It will probably have made whistleblowers and anonymous sources think twice before releasing information. It has, in other words, done a good job of suppressing free speech and freedom of expression.
In 1984 George Orwell wrote “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” It appears that The Times has, in this instance, taken on the role of a large boot, stamping on a little but important voice. Is this something for which a venerable 225-year-old newspaper would like to be remembered?
“Let’s just put that into perspective. Last night saw a low in the UK of -10 Degrees Centigrade. Cold, surely – but right now in Svalbard, Norway (which is actually IN the Arctic) it’s -29 Degrees Centigrade.”
We had no idea that when we – the Orwell Prize and Media Standards Trust – decided to celebrate the 70th anniversary of George Orwell’s diaries by publishing them as a daily blog, they would attract such an astonishing amount of attention.
From Italy to Australia, from the Today Programme to the Boston Globe, the re-publication of the diaries, exactly 70 years after Orwell started them in August 1938, has triggered amazing international interest.
Newsnight’s Paul Mason went so far as to write a ‘homage to the old Tory anarchist’ blog in the style of Orwell. While the Observer mused, “does a blog by a dead person count as a real blog, as the author cannot engage in vicious spats with commentators or post photographs of his cat?”
So how did they come to be published? It started, as these things do, with an awfully good idea. Gavin Freeguard, the Orwell Prize Administrator (with whom I work here at the Media Standards Trust), was trawling through the Orwell archive – a wonderfully dusty couple of rooms housed in a fantastically 1984-ish concrete edifice just north of Euston – when he became entranced by the author’s diaries.
At once substantive and trivial, insightful and quirky, they illuminate both a remarkable man and a remarkable time. Orwell was motivated to start the diaries by Europe’s descent into war. Yet rather than just keep a political record he also decided to write his personal reflections, so giving the reader a sense of place and mood, as well as history.
Yet they have only ever been seen as a footnote to Orwell’s other work. Indeed the only previous time they’ve seen the light of day was 20 years ago, in Peter Davison’s monumental complete works of Orwell (with an understandably limited print run).
It was only after leaving the archive that the serendipity of dates occurred to Gavin. That we were only weeks away from the diaries’ 70th anniversary, and that it would be crazy not to make them available to a wider audience by publishing them as a blog (with a big hat tip to Phil Gyford and the Samuel Pepys diary – launched as a blog back in January 2003).
The news that we were about to do this was picked up by the Today Programme and the Telegraph on Wednesday 30th July, after which it was snaffled by bloggers, then US mainstream press, and then went global (for links to just a few of the international stories see the blog roll on Orwell Diaries).
Our hope now is that by raising the profile of the diaries we’ll not only peak interest in Orwell and his political writing, but in the notion of political blogs generally. The number of good political blogs is, in the UK at least, still pretty limited and most have a teeny audience. Perhaps the Orwell blog will help to change that.