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This week's editor

NSS, editor

Niki Seth-Smith is a freelance journalist and contributing editor to 50.50.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

Encouraging reporters to become emotionally involved in the stories they cover is a worrying new trend argues the BBC’s David Loyn. He calls for objectivity. Des Freedman sees this as admirable but naive; the problems lie with the larger commercial forces that structure news rather than individual journalists. The debate journies with war reporters through Africa, the Middle East and Chechya, and back to the UK where David Elstein complains about the BBC's coverage during the war in Iraq; Danny Schecter and Lance Bennett both give the US media an earfull for failing to perform critically. Also: what has a philosopher to say about truth and objectivity in journalism?

Egypt: press freedom at a crossroads

The military-backed regime in Egypt has an answer to criticism—blame the messenger. But journalists are fighting back.

Objectivity vs. neutrality on Gaza

The Palestine-Israel conflict poses a moral dilemma for journalists. But being objective does not necessarily mean being neutral, and being fair does not mean refraining from making a judgement.

On the frontline: citizen journalism in Syria

As the Syrian civil war moves into its fourth year, citizen journalists have filled the gap left by professionals denied access to or evacuated from the most dangerous country in the world for working journalists. But they are painfully aware of the growing uninterest of the international media in the unending conflict.

Egyptian editors organise to confront media crisis

The military-backed government has sought to enrol journalists as foot-soldiers in its battle against the ousted Muslim Brotherhood. But when editors met this week in Cairo, a collective spirit stirred. 

Violence against women in Syria: a hidden truth

Despite saturated media coverage of the conflict, violence against women in Syria has largely gone unreported. Often horrifically abused, they have been doubly victimised by the public silence.

Women in journalism: not a trivial subject

The biggest newspapers in the United States, Britain and Europe still reserve pages of the most serious political and foreign policy analysis for older white men.

Whose “Mission”? Celebrities, voice and refugees

A new Italian reality TV show is sending celebrities to refugee camps, but for refugees to be able to speak for themselves and convey the message they want to convey, the cameras must be given to refugees themselves, says Nath Gbikpi.

Afghan Voice Radio: The frontline of a ‘new’ Afghanistan

All around the world, Afghan youth who have fled abroad are investing in online media and sports as vehicles for civic participation and peace, says Zubair Gharghasht.

Syria dispatches: Robert Fisk's independence

The reports from Syria of the journalist Robert Fisk raise serious questions over his credibility, say Yassin Al Haj Saleh & Rime Allaf.

WikiLeaks and network-era news

The WikiLeaks storm of 2010 seems to be spent. But as a symptom of what is happening to journalism the WikiLeaks phenomenon carries profound significance, says Charlie Beckett.

The rapid evolution of Al-Shabab’s media and insurgent “journalism”

The evolution of Al-Shabab’s media arm provides a window into the group’s overall maturation as an insurgent movement that has endorsed key elements of Al-Qaeda Central’s ideology while still focusing primarily on waging a domestic insurgency inside Somalia.

The foreign correspondent: James Cameron, 1911-85

A voice of wry observation and quiet authority that made humane sense of distant events to a domestic public helped James Cameron become the most respected international journalist in post-1945 Britain. But is there room for his world-reporting craft in a very different media age, asks David Hayes.

The wrong target: air strike, legal limit, human voice

The military commander of the United States's efforts in Afghanistan, General David H Petraeus, announced on 10 May 2009 that he was appointing a senior colleague to conduct an investigation into the conduct of US air-strikes in Afghanistan.

“Information intervention”: a test of democratic intent

The role of information and communications in generating conflict throughout the 20th century is well documented. There are many examples, of which the propagation of Nazi ideology across Germany's airwaves and Joseph Goebbels's articles in Das Reich in the 1930s, and the leading role of the Hutu-controlled Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines in galvanising genocide in Rwanda, are only among the most notorious.

Laura Kyrke-Smith works at the Polis media project of the LSE At the same time, information and communications have played a vital role in preventing and reacting constructively to conflicts, and in rebuilding societies attempting to recover from conflicts. The Potsdam agreement of August 1945, contained a provision to "prevent all Nazi and militarist propaganda" with the long-term intention to construct a more democratic media space. Similar interventions have been attempted in the wake of numerous conflicts since; in Kosovo, for example, the OSCE has invested millions of dollars in local media development since the 1999 war, on the grounds that "a free and responsible media is an integral component of any democratic society".

The media and the war: seeing the human

In the days after 11 September 2001, the coverage of the attacks in the American press produced one notable innovation. The New York Times launched an effort to write individual profiles of each of the nearly 3,000 victims. By the end of 2001, the Times had reported and written 1,800 "portraits of grief". This was part of the coverage that went on to win a Pulitzer prize. It was striking, and deeply moving, as an attempt to transform a mass killing into a personalised, individualised event - to present the victims not as symbolic but as specific human lives destroyed in a specific crime. This seemed a noble and powerful role for journalism in the face of unprecedented facts.

Halabja: whom does the truth hurt?

In his long reign of calculated cruelty Saddam has used every means available to him – from assassination, kidnapping and torture, to full-scale war, poison gas, ethnic cleansing, and mass deportation. But even by his standards, the gassing of civilians in Halabja on 16 March 1988, during the Iran-Iraq war, is an act with few parallels. It has also become the test case, repeatedly cited in recent months of build-up to another war, of how “Saddam used chemical weapons against his own people”.

But there are a few outstanding questions regarding Halabja, and Saddam is not the only villain.

The media and Africa: doing bad by doing "good"?

One of the high points of my journalistic career was standing next to Jon Snow in Makerere University's (empty) swimming-pool as we broadcast live from an evangelical rally to promote sexual abstention in Kampala. At one point Jon waded into the cheering, swinging crowd and asked a Ugandan youth: "Are you celibate?" "Oh yes!" said the happy young Christian, "I wasn't last week but I am now".

Ryszard Kapuœciñski: the interpreter

The renowned Polish journalist was a voice for pluralism, tolerance, freedom and dignity, says his former colleague Wiktor Osiatyñski.

Ryszard Kapuscinski: from Poland to the world

The death of Ryszard Kapuściński on 23 January 2007 in Warsaw shocked friends, colleagues and readers all over the world. He was 74, but somehow we had all assumed that this small rugged man with the sly smile was indestructible. He had survived so much. The Soviet and then Nazi occupation of his homeland, twenty-seven (or was it twenty-eight?) revolutions and coups all over the world, escape from at least four executions and an near-lethal attack of cerebral malaria in Tanzania, even the smoke, alcohol and stress of a Polish journalist's life - none of these seemed to affect him. He grew a little quieter, as if intimidated by his own fame, but that was all.

The al-Jazeera revelation

George W Bush’s musings about bombing the leading Arab satellite TV station betray hard truths about the United States’s “war on terror”, says Saleh Bechir.

The numbers game: death, media, and the public

When the media reports wars or disasters, why are death tolls announced before bodies are counted? And what does this do to our democracy? Jean Seaton, author of “Carnage and the Media”, dissects the numbers game.

Guatemala: journalism under pressure

Marielos Monzón, a Guatemalan journalist, received the 2005 Human Rights Journalism Under Threat award from Amnesty International. In her acceptance speech, she describes a land where new injustices have succeeded the horrendous violence of the 1954-96 period.

John Humphrys and the BBC's problem

A dispute over the political views of a leading BBC journalist reflects the concerns of the corporation’s hierarchy over its relationship with Britain’s New Labour government, says David Elstein.

The Thing

The decision of the British government, led by prime minister Tony Blair, to support the United States’s preparations to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq was extremely controversial in the country. There was massive popular protest and bitter criticism in the press and broadcasting media.

The government tried to win public opinion to its argument that the Iraqi regime – through its remaining weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and active programmes to develop those weapons – was a clear and present danger to Britain as well as to its region.

In September 2002, the government published a dossier on Iraq’s WMD. In a foreword, Tony Blair wrote: “What I believe the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt is that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons, that he continues in his efforts to develop nuclear weapons.”

Before, during and after the war of March-April 2003, the reliability and use of this “intelligence” (secret information) lay at the heart of debate about the war’s justification, purpose and legality. The political atmosphere in Britain became more tense, public opinion more animated, media coverage more frenzied.

“What name to give such a government it is difficult to say. It is like nothing that ever was heard of before. It is neither a monarchy, an aristocracy, nor a democracy…Such is the government of England; such is the thing which has been able to bribe one half of Europe to oppress the other half.” [William Cobbett, Register 33 (1818)]

One of the British government’s most respected advisers on Iraq’s WMD, an experienced weapons scientist who had worked with the United Nations to disarm Iraq during the 1990s, was the microbiologist David Kelly. As part of his job with the ministry of defence, he had regularly briefed journalists on an unattributable basis. On 22 May, he met and talked to a BBC radio journalist called Andrew Gilligan in a London hotel.

On 29 May, Andrew Gilligan alleged on the BBC’s flagship morning radio programme that the British government knew that a key piece of intelligence information presented to the public in the September 2002 dossier – that Saddam possessed WMD that could be launched within 45 minutes – was false. Gilligan sourced this allegation to “one of the senior officials in charge of drawing up that dossier”.

On 1 June, a newspaper hostile to the government published an article by Gilligan accusing Alastair Campbell, the prime minister’s chief of communications, of “sexing up” (embellishing) the dossier.

Campbell expressed outrage at the accusation of deceit, and was publicly scathing in criticism of the BBC’s coverage of the issue. Over the next month, both government officials and media engaged in strenuous efforts to identify the source of Gilligan’s allegations.

David Kelly confided to his superiors that he had spoken to Gilligan, but disputed the latter’s version of their conversation. Kelly’s name gradually became known to senior government, civil service, and intelligence officials, and to BBC executives.

After his name entered the public domain, Kelly was interviewed on 15 July by the foreign affairs committee of the lower house of parliament. In a strained, televised encounter, he denied being the source of Andrew Gilligan’s claim about Alastair Campbell’s role in the September 2002 dossier.

“Their reactions are invariably ones of disbelief, dismay and, occasionally disgust…Their overwhelming view is that no press is as intrusive, offensive, quasi-pornographic, arrogant, inaccurate, salacious and unprincipled.” [non-British journalism students at London’s City University on the British press, quoted in Hugh Stephenson and Michael Bromley, eds., Sex, Lies and Democracy: the press and the public (1998)]

On 17 July, David Kelly left his home in the village of Southmoor, Oxfordshire to go for a walk. The next day his body was found, the cause of death loss of blood from a wound on his left wrist.

The government announced an independent public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding David Kelly’s death. It was led by a senior judge, Lord (Brian) Hutton, and lasted from 1 August to 25 September 2003.

Hutton published his report on 28 January 2004. It substantially exonerated Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, and senior civil service and intelligence officials from blame; it was severely critical of Andrew Gilligan, and of the BBC’s management and editorial procedures.

After the Hutton report, the BBC’s chairman (Gavyn Davies) and director-general (Greg Dyke) resigned, followed by Gilligan. Most newspapers, and a large section of British public opinion, remained censorious of Tony Blair’s government, and regarded the report as a “whitewash” of its role.

As the public argument continued, the British government announced a further inquiry into the pre-war use of intelligence about Saddam’s WMD. Its chair is Lord (Robin) Butler, formerly head of the civil service and adviser to several prime ministers.


Tall tales and home truths

Why are government and media in Britain so hostile to each other? Because each seeks to control the narratives that shape people’s lives, says Tom Bentley of the think-tank Demos. In the process, both are damaged – and so is democracy itself.

Re-presenting Africa: an interview with Sorious Samura

How do you tell African stories that engage a world audience? The pioneering African news journalist Sorious Samura – a streetwise sophisticate – talks to Caspar Henderson and Caspar Melville of about war, famine, Africa and reality TV.

How should the BBC be regulated?

The BBC is under the spotlight following Lord Hutton’s report, which criticised its coverage of the British use of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war. How can the broadcaster recover from its latest collision with power?

Media power: telling truths to ourselves

The crisis in Britain over the Iraq war, its intelligence and its reporting, is one of media as well as politics. John Lloyd asks: can journalism, both press and television, tell stories for active citizens rather than cynical couch potatoes?

Tony Blair and Iraq: a public tragedy

The Hutton report reveals the crisis of the British model of governance. Tony Blair and the BBC alike have fed the public realm’s “manipulative populism”, says David Marquand. Will Blair’s leadership now be consumed by it?

The Campbell Code

The Hutton report on the death of a British scientist blames the BBC and clears Tony Blair, but misses the larger truth of the Iraq weapons affair: the British government’s system of command and control.

The conclusion of the Hutton Inquiry into the death of the British weapons inspector David Kelly has coincided with the call by David Kay for a “fundamental fault analysis” into the intelligence used to justify the coalition’s

Hutton and the BBC

The Hutton report is both hopelessly skewed and a devastating critique of the BBC’s failures, says David Elstein. But it provides the corporation with an opportunity to change for the better.

Hutton - the wrong inquiry

A press corroded by cynicism could not see that the death of a British weapons scientist was a private tragedy, not a political scandal.

The nasty truth about the noble lie

The long walk to freedom takes place across language. What happens when words are abused by power, cheapened by war, or corrupted by media? This philosopher-TV executive surveys openDemocracy’s debate on journalism and war, and asks whether George Orwell’s dystopian vision of thought-killing ‘Newspeak’ has been realised in contemporary American journalism.

The perfect storm? The American media and Iraq

The American media’s coverage of the 2003 Iraq war reinforces the pattern established in the wake of 9/11: a combination of intimidation, collusion, inattention, and ethnocentrism. A leading scholar of the media charts a dismal period in US journalism and asks whether a turn of the political tide offers hope of its revival.

Dreams of authenticity: war, TV, and the Chechen mask

Swiss television processes the suffering of Chechnya according to time-honoured formulas recycled in dozens of wars worldwide: ruins, corpses, graves, tears. But Chechen custom defies the media conventions. How do the professionals then react? Irena Brezna fascinatingly explores the tensions between two worlds.
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