Sep 20 2012

An interview with Chris Walker

Christopher Walker had a busy summer reporting for GRNlive. What with the Queen’s Jubilee, the Olympics, and Julian Assange taking refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy, we had our veteran correspondent zigzagging across London relentlessly in our schizophrenic weather, be it torrential rain pouring on the Queen’s flotilla, and stifling sun beating over the heads of the Wikileaks supporters out in Knightsbridge.

And yet, we managed to grab him for an hour into our Hammersmith office at the Riverside Studios, to tell us about his career, his highlights of this year, and his thoughts about the past, present and future of journalism.

They don’t make them like this anymore. Christopher Walker was out there when most of the faces adorning our television screens today were yet to be born. Chris joined the Times in 1972, and covered Belfast (“that’s where everybody started back then”), the Middle East, and Moscow, popping in and out of an endless number of hotspots in-between. He has joined GRNlive in its early days, over 10 years ago, and based himself back in London.

We love working with Chris as he combines the commitment, enthusiasm and “no story is too big or small” attitude of a proper 20th century hack, with the curiosity ad willingness to use new technologies of the journalists of the future. Chatting to him this week was a bit of a tour-de-force through 40 years of journalism. We hope you’ll enjoy watching it, comments and questions to Chris, as ever, are more than welcome.

The entire interview is available to view on YouTube here. Be warned, it is quite long, so we have broken it down into several smaller, topic based chunks as below.

On Julian Assange

On the Diamond Jubilee

On the Olympics

On the London riots

On Northern Ireland

On the Middle East

On GRNlive and Chris’s experience of working with us over the last several years.

Sep 12 2012

Missing the Spirit of the Moment

The British exhilaration over the Olympic and Para-Olympics games must have puzzled some spectators. In July they unanimously converted overnight from a grumpy and grunting “this is going to be dreadful, I’m getting out of London until it is over” kind of mood, to a state of national exhilaration which threw them back – as any event of joy or horror in recent years does –  to the constituting moment of their modern nation: the war, the Blitz, the time they stood united under the Union Jack.

Even in rebellious Scotland, a huge set of Olympic rings adorned the hillside next to the National Assembly, and welcomed the visitors flocking to the Fringe festival.

London resident American comedian David Mills predicted the change of mood when defeatism was still everywhere: “of course everyone is going to hate it. It’s the British way – hate it, hate it, hate it. Until one person, at some party, somewhere says: ‘I hate it so much, I sort of love it.’ and then that will catch on and everyone is going to LOVE to hate it and people will be rushing home from work early so they can love hating it on TV or at the pub with friends and then there will be some British success story — in whatever sport, a fresh faced British boy from a working class family or a Hackney council estate who somehow beats the odds and ascends high enough to snatch the gold in swimming or badminton or running and with the soundtrack of Coldplay swelling in the background suddenly it will flip and instead of loving to hate the Olympics everyone will suddenly LOVE to LOVE the Olympics and all over the UK Union Jacks will flutter and  people will start chanting and a nationalistic cry will rise up in unison. And that’s when I’ll really hate the Olympics…”

But nobody hated the Olympics. Foreign and local journalists alike admitted to have been taken by the jolly frenzy that has engulfed the UK by storm. London’s “greatest summer” which ended on Monday 10th September with the athletes parade seems to have made one significant difference. The Olympics and the Paralympics, despite the separation between them, were seen as one long event of athletic excellence. The interest in the Paralympics was almost as sweeping as the excitement over the first stage of the games, and disabled athletes became household names in many homes in the world. This was enabled by a combination of the marketing strategy of both Olympic committees, but also by the vast majority of world’s media taking on board the notion that the Paralympics are an exciting affair, full of stories of personal strife, courage against odds and individual excellence. It also helped that Israel did not attack Iran, no major climatic disaster hit and the news agenda was, as in most summers, rather dreary.

But not all broadcasters noticed the changing wind. Some have somehow failed to notice that the Paralympics is no longer a limping ugly sister, lagging behind the “real thing” but a world event in its own rights.

NBC made the mistake of dismissing the Paralympics and had to face a backlash they have not, in all likelihood, expected. The British media responded with rage to the fact that the network broadcasted only 4 packages of 60 minutes from the Paralympics “on one of its most obscure cable TV channels”, as The Independent newspaper described it. Disappointing coverage compared to the 150 hours broadcasted by Channel 4 in the UK, and 100 hours by Australian TV. NBC also cut the broadcast of the closing ceremony of the Paralympics in order to air a pilot for a new sit-com.

The UK newspaper Metro reported this morning that The Paralympics committee is threatening to not grant NBC broadcasting rights at the next Olympic games. A spokesperson says the committee expects NBC to “come to us and offer apologies and explanations”. In all likelihood “that’s the way we always used to do it” is not going to cut it for NBC. Sometimes even a big and established broadcaster might blink at the wrong moment and miss the fact that the times, they are changing…

Sep 03 2012

Mind the Gaff

Politicians, especially US republican ones, are known to put their foot in it when it comes to world facts. George W Bush has broken some world records when it comes to factual gaffs and us, journalists, were the first to get on his case for it.

Mitt Romney is constantly challenging Bush Junior’s title, with a new astounding statement nearly every week. The one that got him most scorn of late was his assertion that “It’s unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon. And …Syria is their key ally. It’s their only ally in the Arab world. It is also their route to the sea.” Journalists were the first to note that the Republican presidential candidate had clearly missed the meaning of the term “The Persian Gulf”, and could be assisted by owning a Middle East map. Others wondered whether one of the dozens of interns working in Romney’s service can’t possibly be assigned to engage in some diligent googling before the candidate actually opens his mouth.

But are we really proving ourselves fit to cast the first stone? Recently, CNN have shown a map of Africa when attempting to indicate the location of Cambodia, which earned it quite a few gleeful posts on twitter and Facebook. (BTW on a first version of this blog post I said  “showed a map of south America”, even though the map was just in front of me, and was corrected by a friend after I posted the blog on Facebook; which only goes to show nobody’s really qualified to cast the first stone…)

Last week three Israeli major newspapers Yediot, Israel Hayom and the respectable broadsheet Ha’aretz published photographs of the Grand Kenyon in Nevada, US, claiming they were “pictures from Mars

Staring at those mistakes you can only tear your hair out and ask: doesn’t anybody use Google?

The problem, is of course quite the opposite: everybody does. More often then not – this is just how this happens – people, journalists as well as politicians often use Google without using judgment, or common sense and without cross referencing.

It is staggeringly easy to find pictures of the Grand Canyon when looking for photos of Mars. All it takes is for someone to post a photo of the grand Canyon somewhere with the tagline “It looks just like Mars” and there you have it – all over Google images.

In a brave experiment, jeopardising my sanity in service of this blog post, I’ve checked out what could be found when putting my own name in Google images. Alongside quite a few pics of myself I have also found many pictures of other women, mostly unknown to me, who seemed to have been mentioned on some articles or entries which have mentioned me too, or which I have written over the years, including a pic of a porn star and a hip-hop singer. Also featured on the images page the portrait of the Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak, Palestinian imprisoned activist Omar Barguti and, most bizarrely, some flowers. It was not the first time that the thought has crossed my mind that if anybody ever specifically looks for my picture there’s not much to stop some trainee picking up a photo of a poll dancer, a peace activist from West Virginia, or a Gladiola. I hope they’d have the common sense to realise I’m not Rhianna.

Google, like any other search engine and the internet in general, is but a tool; it makes everything easier – to find out facts, to get facts wrong and to be caught when you do. Like any great tool it can work magic in capable hands and stir havoc in ignorant ones. It is not Google’s fault when we get things wrong, and not its credit when we get them right. There are many reasons why we get it wrong more then ever and they have to do more with human resources than with software.

When I was working as news editor on a weekly newspaper in the late 1990s early 2000s, it took 5 signatures before a page could go to print – two proofreaders, the section editor, the graphics editor and the editor in chief, not to mention the journalist who wrote the piece. How many signatures does it take to put a page on the internet, even a page of a respectable newspaper? The need for speed competes against the duties of care and the need to save (aka greed), cuts not only the number of eyes that view the material, but also compromises the quality. There is no replacement for the “institutional knowledge”, the old hack in the office who had seen it on and just knows what Stalin, Jimmy Carter, or King George 5th look like and that Burma does not border Venezuela not even in a month full of Sundays. The experienced editor who could cross check missing facts and verify fact from hearsay with one phone call to a veteran source.

And just at a time when it is so easy to get it wrong, it is also simply impossible not to get caught, with millions of twittering fingers following millions of scrutinising eyes. At some point, before too long balance will have to be redefined and the mechanisms for fact verifying and page proofing reinstated. If this doesn’t happen professional journalism will find it harder to survive the fight against the other forms of information mushrooming around. And this could get dangerous.

Aug 28 2012

When the Public Has Something to Hide

Hundreds of people, according to the Jerusalem police, watched the lynching of 4 Palestinians in Zion Square, at the centre of the Israeli capital, early morning on Saturday 19th August. One of the victims, Jamal Julani, was beaten to the ground and the mob kept kicking his head long after he had lost consciousness. He was thought dead, or as good as, and taken to hospital in what was defined as critical condition. Fortunately, he seems to be almost miraculously recovering; his condition is currently defined as “serious”. 5 suspects, between the ages of 13 and 19 have been arrested, and more arrests, according to the police, are yet to be made.

The incident sent shock waves across Israel, though the numbers of Israelis justifying the chilling racist attack is horrifying. The brother of one of the suspects said to the press: “Why should an Arab make passes at my sister? They shouldn’t be here, it’s our area. For what other reason would they come here if not to make passes at Jewish girls?”

The event follows a series of demonstrations and rallies by radical right wing activists joined by Members of Knesset in cities in central Israel all under the blood-curdling familiar racist old argument. “They’ve come to take our women.”

The landmark posed by this event and its resemblance to scenes from Weimar Germany bother me on a personal and political level, but this time I’d like to address another element of it that grabbed my attention. Despite the alleged presence of hundreds of eye witnesses on scene – there are no photos around the internet of the incident and hardly any quotes from eye witnesses, except from that of volunteering youth worker Batya Houri-Yafin, on her Facebook profile page (as quoted in +972).

This is quite rare. Violent incidents in the public domain with witnesses who watch in relative safety normally yield photographic evidence and written testimonials all over social media and those in turn find their way to established media in practically no time. The Instagram-silence on this occasion is deafening, and serves as a reminder that “citizen journalism” has its own shortcomings.

It wouldn’t be wild to speculate that at least every other person in the circle surrounding the brutal lynching had a mobile phone with a camera. It is hard to imagine that pictures were not taken and I’ll be surprised if some of them do not turn up in the prosecution’s material filed to court. But where are they now? How is it that not one of them found its way to the media? To be clear, there are, of course, photos of the scene from after the police and photojournalists arrived and the incident was effectively over, but none of the actual assault, which was witnessed by a large crowd.

Is it possible that the public is beginning to learn the lessons of previous such documenting; be it the Abu Graib torturers documenting their deeds or Israeli soldiers in the West Bank posing next to cuffed, beaten and humiliated Palestinians? The posters of such photos were met with repercussions, either in the form of legal prosecution or public criticism.

A lynching is one of those instances where eye-witnesses, even when not being instigators, are always more than innocent bystanders. The law in different countries varies in relation to a witness’s obligation to try and stop a crime taking place in front of their eyes, but in the moral-public realm the question remains: were you really watching a mob kicking a young man in the head, almost to death, and did nothing?

Some witnesses must feel guilty or fearful of “getting into trouble” with the police or with the instigators and their families. Others, unfortunately, may support the attack and its racist motives. Some are just ashamed to admit they were there. The fact remains that not only are photos absent from the public debate; but eyewitness testimonials are also unusually scarce.

This reminds us of a sometimes forgotten truth: there is no replacement to the presence of the one type of person on the scene whose only incentive is to expose the truth and show it to the world: the professional journalist, be it a cameraperson or a reporter. Citizens can decide to become “journalists for a moment” or opt to retreat and remain silent. Journalists are there to tell the story. Naturally, in an incident as short as the Jerusalem lynching, taking place in the late hours of night/early hours of morning, no journalist could have made it to the scene on time. But the mission of bringing the truth to light, including recovering now hidden photographic evidence, is still theirs. When citizens have something to hide, there is no citizen journalism.

Aug 07 2012

“It Will Be Messy”: An Interview With Stephen Starr, author of Revolt in Syria

This week we were lucky enough to chat with our Syria correspondent Stephen Starr, just as his book, Revolt in Syria: Eyewitness to the Uprising (Hurst 2012) is coming out. He sheds some light on one of the most intriguing of all the Middle East countries. The reviews are quite startling. Noam Chomsky said: “This searching inquiry is painful reading, but urgent for those who hope to understand what lies behind the shocking events in Syria, what the prospects might be, and what outsiders can and cannot do to mitigate the immense suffering as a country so rich in history and promise careers towards disaster”; Fergal Keane of the BBC added: “Stephen Starr had a unique vantage point as Syria’s revolution unfolded. Written with insight and verve his book is essential reading for anybody interested in Syria”

Stephen has been travelling so much recently that we couldn’t pin him down for a live interview when he was in London, or get him in front of a computer anywhere with a reasonable connection. So eventually we resorted to a good old email exchange, which was, nonetheless, fascinating.

Congratulations, Stephen. Could you start by telling us a little bit about your career as a journalist?

When I got to Syria in 2007 I started working at the Syria Times – a state-run pamphlet. When it closed in 2008 I began freelancing for a few Syrian publications and wrote feature articles for some other international newspapers and magazines. Obviously when the revolt began a flood of work opened up which was good and bad as it was important to be discrete to avoid not being asked to leave Syria. It was extremely difficult to manage both the writing commitments and staying onside with the government – who had granted me a 12-month press visa for 2011. I have reported from Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon, but would very much like to work in other parts of the region.

What got you interested in Syria? When did you go there for the first time?

I studied international security and conflict studies in Dublin in 2006 – the year of the July war in Lebanon and was drawn to the Levant from there. I travelled to Damascus in early 2007 with the aim of moving on to Beirut but got to like Damascus. It had a strange charm. Obviously, there was far less competition between freelance journalists in Damascus than Beirut so I decided to stay there and try to build a portfolio and to learn about the country.

Was there “writing on the wall?” or to what extent was the regime taken by surprise?

Outwardly it seems the Syrian authorities were taken by surprise but the entire political and military/security system has been built for this moment in mind and that is why the Syrian revolt has continued for so long when compared with other Arab uprisings. The system has been built to make defections very difficult, to keep the army and security forces loyal. On top of this, there is an extreme propaganda campaign being run by state media and this has kept many civilians in the major cities quiet. The English-language media don’t focus much on the power of this propaganda.

Apart from the influence of the Arab spring revolts, what were the main causes of resentment in Syria, what kindled the Syrian revolt?

Economic hardship. If we can attribute one event to sparking the Syrian uprising on a countrywide scale it was the government’s inadequate reaction to the drought of 2008-10. The drought forced almost one million farmers and labourers living in the eastern regions into the cities where they lived in substandard housing and searched out part-time jobs. I often took taxis in Damascus where my driver had no idea of the destination I asked him to go to – he was from the east and had picked up a job driving a taxi for a couple of hours a day and didn’t know the streets. We have to remember the initial calls at protests were not for Bashar’s head – they were for reform, for dignity.

Is there a religious-ethnic background to it?

There is, to the extent that three-quarters of the population is Sunni and that the vast majority of protestors are, as a result, also Sunni. The regime has successfully managed to draw many from minority religions and sects to its side by portraying the uprising as an Israeli/terrorist/Saudi/American plot to destabilise Syria. It has armed Alawites and told them to watch out for strangers in their neighbourhoods. It has successfully planted fear in the minds of many. Another smart trick the regime has pulled off is to equate the word ‘Syria’ to ‘the regime’. When the government speaks of ‘Syria’ it really means ‘us’. So when it says – as it does 24/7 in the media – that there’s a “campaign against Syria” it really means there’s a campaign against the regime. Because the propaganda is so intense many – particularly minorities who haven’t been directly affected by the regime’s violence – don’t see the difference.

The Syrian rebels were less explicit about their wishes and desires from their revolution than the Egyptians or the Libyans. What are the rebels trying to achieve, what is the Syria they envisage?

That is because the rebels are the regime’s creation. If the regime sat down with people and genuinely listened to what they wanted there would be no rebel movement today. We must be clear – if the regime had not used guns and shells against protestors the protestors would never have felt the need to defend themselves through arms. Violence has clearly begot more violence. The regime leaders will see the country burn to the ground before giving way.

Some rebels want an Islamic emirate, some say they want democracy, though perhaps, their vision of what that entails may be unclear. All want the fall of the regime as they number one goal and that is what is uniting them – for now.

To what extent does Bashar Assad personally control the oppression of the revolt? Is there any truth in the suggestion that he is still at the mercy of the old school security apparatuses created by his father?

We don’t know and can only speculate. I believe it is not he who is ordering military operations. I believe it was not he who ordered the shelling of Baba Amr in February. Sure, he signed off on these operations, but were they his ideas? I think not.

The number one question we have to ask and to find out is this: Who ordered soldiers to fire on and kill peaceful protesters in Deraa in March 2011? Was it Bashar? Mahar?Or someone else? Whoever made that call is the real leader of the regime.

How much of the army is still under Assad’s control and how many have defected? Will the next regime in Syria be military too?

Again we can only speculate. Thousands of soldiers have been confined to barracks. Thousands more are in training camps around the country. They know nothing of the outside world other than they are fighting Islamic terrorists. The soldiers I saw every day were the ones cowering out from checkpoints or transporting food to different military areas. The ones few Syrians see are those who move on the highways in the early hours of the morning to Homs, Deraa or eastern Damascus. They are steely-eyed and battle-hardened. They are from perhaps only two or three divisions – those closest to the regime.

The more violent the revolt becomes and the more deaths there are, the greater the chance of a military leader/system taking control after. The rebels have fought and died for this revolt. The political opposition is safe and comfortable in Washington, Istanbul or Paris, and they have failed in their efforts to get foreign military intervention – which many protestors want. There will be a huge split (I hope I’m wrong) between the rebels who fight to take over and win control of the presidential palace, and the opposition who arrive into Damascus airport expecting to take up presidential or prime ministry posts and to be greeted by thousands of cheering fans. Syrians themselves will be split on who to support. People from Idlib, Homs, Hama and Deraa will likely side with rebel leaders, while the middle classes in Aleppo and Damascus will probably support less militarised leaders. It will be messy.

There were suggestions that the Saudis are funding the rebels in hope that weakening Assad would weaken his ally Iran. How strong are the evidence of that?

I would say there is some, but it is not like the revolt is solely a Saudi proxy uprising. Lots of money is apparently coming up from the Gulf. But I wouldn’t bank on a post-Assad government that works for Saudi interests. Syrians don’t feel they owe the Saudis anything for funding the rebels largely because the support has not been very transparent. Syrians don’t trust the Saudi government – they are well-versed in Saudi’s close ties with the American government etc. I believe (and hope) that they will feel too much Syrian blood has been spilt to allow significant foreign interference in their country, from anyone.

Aug 06 2012

Turning Police Cars Over As a Favourite Sport: Celebrating AiWeiWei

Alison Klaiman was GRNlive’s correspondent in Beijing, and she is now based in New York. This week I had the opportunity to sneak a peek at her documentary Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry, about Chinese dissident artist Ai WeiWei.  Ai WeiWei has a rock star-like image in china and outside of it. He exhibits all over the world, his work is communicative, pop-arty, he’s been referred to as the Chinese Andy Warhol and he designed the iconic Birds Nest Stadium which was so identified with the 2008 Olympic games in China. But that moment of joy in the relationship between Ai and the Chinese regime was short-lived. He insisted of investigating the earthquake in Szechuan in April 2008, which ended in the death of thousands, many of them children in badly constructed schools. Ai joined another Chinese artist, Zen Zuoren, in an investigation, aiming to compile a list of students killed in the earthquake. He also posted his list of names of schoolchildren who died on the wall of his office at FAKE Design in Beijing.

He insisted on filing a complaint against a police officer who attacked him while detaining him illegally for trying to testify for Tan Zuoren. On 14 September 2009, Ai was diagnosed to be suffering internal bleeding in a hospital in Munich, Germany, and the doctor arranged for emergency brain surgery. The cerebral hemorrhage is believed to be linked to the police attack.

AWW is a keen user of social media, a constant tweeter with a great passion for communication. One of my favourite tweets of his is: “Let these be the last words: the persons who hate to sleep early at night and love to stroke the keyboards in front of monitors create a miracle of ending the last dark age.¨(August 2, 2009 01:45:55). Another great one has to be: “Overturning police cars is a super-tough workout physically. I enjoy this sport event which probably is the only sport event I like, and I will definitely participate in”. (June 15, 2009 18:46:59) In a particularly funny and moving moment of the film a fan approaches him and says “Teacher Ai, I follow you on Twitter” – a declaration that echoes like an oath of allegiance.

In 2011 AWW was detained for 81 days and then released on bail under strict conditions that he stops twitting and refrains from being interviewed. In June 2011, the Beijing Local Taxation Bureau demanded a total of over 12 million yuan (US $1.85 million) from Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd in unpaid taxes and fines. He is still struggling to contest this demand, though he managed to pay most of the sum by generous donations from his supporters, mainly in China.

Alison’s film follows him through this fascinating period and captures his unique character – a larger than life, warm, somewhat bear-like man with immense charisma, great curiosity and heaps of charm, who is determined to change his country for the better. Despite the constant persecution he is subjected to, the film is optimistic and uplifting. AiWeiWei: Never Sorry is released in the UK on 10 August 2012, and dates for its openings around the world will be available on the film’s Twitter account @AWWNeverSorry and on its Facebook page.

Watch our interview with director Alison Klayman, and catch her film this summer/autumn in a cinema close to you. Thank me later…

Jul 31 2012

Meet Bartholomew Rudd

Exciting days at GRNlive’s offices in late July: London enjoyed whole three days of sunshine after weeks of gloomy rain; the Olympic opening ceremony went down a treat and we were all watching it excitedly on the television and trying to spot our very own Matt Cooksey. Today we spent at least an hour glued to the diving competition and Henry got us a new swanky logo over which a consensus was reached after a rather long debate regarding the location of the red bit. Meanwhile, I’ve been getting rather manic about my two shows I’m taking to the Edinburgh Fringe this week: Frenemies and Half Past Bitch (I’m ever so grateful for working in a company where I can both maintain a creative hobby and use the profane language. I was recently interviewed by a radio station that made me refer to the latter show as Half Past Itch).

But by all means the most glamerous event was the invasion of one Bartholomew Rudd into our lives. Bartholomew, or Bart as we call him when he’s at home, stars in our first little “viral” which introduces GRNlive’s work in a light hearted way. In this first episode Bart, an old school hack with very strong ideas as to what journalism is about, discovers, to his horror, the existence of GRN, and pledges revenge.

We’ve all met Bartholomew Rudd. Well, maybe not quite this Bartholomew Rudd, but one just like him. An old timer who refuses to acknowledge new technologies or new ways of reporting and buries his head in the ground at the very idea that the world has changed.

A week, is far to late, to start reporting from the ground after a breaking news event, that being on the ground is as vital to contemporary news reporting as getting one’s facts right, that big teams parachuted into an event are becoming a thing of the past, and mainly, that quotations in Latin should be kept to the absolute minimum.

Then again, we are all growing to like him. He still has a trick or two under his hat and in his journey of revenge he might give us a bit of a bleeding nose before surrendering to GRNlive’s “frightful acronym”. We are happy to take it with a smile.

Bart is the creation of Ben Cohen, who was an editor at GRN in the early days and he is played brilliantly by Roy Weskin, the hilarious Cathy is played by Mira Dovereni, and the diligent GRN correspondent is no other than our very own Henry Peirse, who clearly misses reporting from the ground. We are now contemplating sending him somewhere wild. The film is directed by Andy Johnstone

The film also gives you a glimpse into our office in Hammersmith, London. It is modest but we like it, especially because it is right on the river by the gorgeous Hammersmith Bridge.

I’m looking forward to the next instalment of Bartholomew’s adventures, but before we let him embark on them, we’d love to hear your thoughts, ideas and suggestions. So, what do you think of our Bartholomew?

Jul 27 2012

Booked! The Hacks’ List of Inspiring Novels Starts Here

In the beginning of the very hot summer of 2003, I was on my way back from Jerusalem to Oxford. After 6 months of a fellowship with the Reuters Foundation Programme, I was to be affiliated to St Antony’s College, aka Oxford’s “spies college” because of its dedication to international relations, as a Senior Associate Member. This very posh title basically means that the college allows you to come in, have lunch at the college’s dining room, hang out at the Seniors Common Room while reading newspapers and drinking tea, use the library and write a book. I was ecstatic over the opportunity to expand my paper about the Guardian’s coverage of Israel into a book.

On my departure I received an unexpected present from my colleague Anshel Pfeffer. Anshel, is now Ha’aretz correspondent in London. Back in Jerusalem we had a somewhat rocky professional friendship. When I was Kol Ha’ir’s lefty-liberal News editor he was my right-wing and religious (I believe he lost both traits over time, facts for which I take absolutely no credit…) correspondent for religious affairs. The professional respect we held for each other carried us above those differences, but it had taken me a while to forgive him the fact that he later was appointment editor-in-chief over my head.

That’s probably why I’ve not really checked out the present he’d given me, until one cold afternoon later in the following winter. I just couldn’t bring myself to leave the shabby north Oxfordian room I was staying in and walk down to St Antony’s to labour over my own writing. I was out of the crime novels which I’d been binging on as if they were sweets; so I dug into my suitcase and reluctantly opened the present. The book,  Michael Frayn’s ‘Towards The End of the Morning’, delighted me and nobody saw me for the 3 days it took to consume from cover to cover.

Frayne’s novel is about a newspaper in London in the 1960s, in which nobody ever gets fired and about John Dyson, its ambitious and useless crosswords-and-nature-notes editor who is horrified by the parachuting of a young and diligent “can-do” into his dusty department. It is a truly hilarious novel but it also captures the sadness of a moment in time – just like the moment we are all living through now – where the game of journalism completely changes. Television emerged as the sparkly new game in town and getting oneself a spot as a talking head was becoming the to-be-or-not-to-be of a whole generation of journalists. But for me, more than anything else, it was a road map to the new world I found myself in, the world of British journalism. ‘Towards the End of the Mornin’g does not mention the name of the newspaper in the centre of its plot, but it is almost common knowledge that it was inspired by the Guardian, the newspaper in which Frayne worked for long years. The Guardian I walked into in 2003 to interview its contributors and editors for my book was a very different place to Frayn’s caricature of a 1960s paper. Boozy lunches were a thing of the past (by that time the only place where they still survived bravely was Peter Wilby’s New Statesman, until his retirement in 2005) , at The Guardian everybody seemed terribly efficient and deliberate, friendly and helpful. But I was a wide eyed journalist from a Middle East. When we fire someone, they know it, when we are angry, you hear it the next street and when we suspect something is not kosher, we raise hell.  Had I not read Frayne’s book I would never have been able to figure out that “I’m reluctant to go ahead” means “this is never going to happen”, that “let’s leave it at that” means “I’m furious and suspect I’ve not been told the truth” and that “I shouldn’t keep you” means “blimey! Are you still here?”…

I still go back to Frayne’s book, both for its entertainment value, but also for guidance. Whenever I need to decide whether to take offence by something an editor or a colleague said, whenever I need to understand what has actually happened in the last meeting I’ve attended, I read a few pages in ‘Towards The End Of The Morning’. And somehow, the vagaries of existence in John Dyson’s crossword-and-nature-notes department make it all clear to me, or at least, makes it clear that it does not necessarily matter. Thanks again, Anshel Pfeffer!

Asking colleagues for their inspirational novels, I received the following lovely contribution from our own Christopher Walker in London:

“Even before entering into the journalistic waters of the big world, I was one of many who cut their milk teeth as editor of the the Oxford student weekly Cherwell, and it was in that role that I first encountered the legendary (and now sadly, late)  Richard Hughes at his home from home, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong, where reporters seeking R and R from Vietnam drank its potent bull shot (treble vodka and consomme) and he held court magnificently, addressing one and all by ecclesiastical titles such as “Monsignor” and  giving generously of his 30 years experience as the top UK and Australian reporter in the Far East, and its premier “China Watcher.”

Much of this wit and wisdom is distilled in his autobiography “Foreign Devil: Thirty Years of Reporting from the Far East”, published by Deutsch. As all good Far Eastern hands are aware, a Gweilo or “foreign devil” is what most of us expats are regarded as by the locals. Hughes, often dressed in voluminous khaki shorts and blessed with a wicked sense of humour, used to let any such suspicion roll of his broad back  by quoting the traditional 7th century Japanese folk song Nara:

“Whene’er I take my walks abroad

What bloody fools I see;

But, such the justice of the Lord,

They think the same of me.”

One critic wrote of Hughes’ much loved tome:, having quoted as an intro a famous request to a young Hughes by a Japanese sea captain: “We do not have dirty words in Japanese.. please teach us the Australian ones…” that Hughes was a journalist, raconteur and in all liklihood, a spy. He was suspected of running the M16  station in Hong Kong, a vital info point,and also very possibly of doubling on the side for the Russians.

As such, he is famed in some of the finest literature of espionage of being  the model for both Dikko Henderson, the Australian spy in Ian Fleming’s  “You Only Live twice” and  even more famously, “Old Craw” in John Le Carre’s Honourable Schoolboy.

In real life, where Fleming as foreign manager of the postwar Sunday Times was indeed his boss, he was famed for securing an exclusive interview in 1956 in Moscow with the runaway British spooks, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. But he never managed to emulate the feat of his fellow Aussie Sunday Times man Phillip Knightley in securing a face to face meeting with Kim Philby himself.

Anyone who had tasted of  the accounts of the mysterious and inscrutable ways of the Far East in Hughes’ prose, and later from his own mouth, was destined in my view to follow his chosen profession (foreign correspondent that is), although perhaps without his range of experience, varying from Kobe’s Honourable Sex Shop to the drinking of turtle blood at a sayonara banquet  for respectful members of Japan’s newly-formed secret police.




Now, dear colleagues, friends and readers – this is your turn. Let’s get our list of the 20 best books about journalism going. 18 to go, put your comments down here.

Jul 19 2012

That Story that Made a Journalist Out of You

Every journalist has a moment when he or she know they can call themselves a journalist. This moment could be elusive, but it often has to do with covering a big story. Whether it is when you wear a headscarf while crossing a checkpoint, pretending to not really be paying attention while eavesdropping on a big state secret, getting shot at, or getting a phone call from your very own and first “deep throat”. Sometimes it happens when you reflect on a conversation you had an hour earlier and realize that something just doesn’t add up, sometimes when lying at the bottom of a van in-between rebel camps, trying very hard not to breath and sometimes when you present a high ranking official with the question that could end his career, maybe even send him to prison. I think mine was when I was in a car climbing up the steep hill to the settlement Itamar in the West Bank on my quest for the ex-combat-pilot now guru-type radical settler Avry Ran, who groomed a bunch of lost and stray teenagers in an outpost organized in a biblical style. Two tents, one for humans, one for animals, many dogs and a woman dressed like she must have imagined the biblical Rebecca or Sarah did.

The secretary of the more established settlement at the bottom of the hill, when he realized he failed to convinced me not to go up there, insisted of escorting us in the car and was almost visibly shaking. Ran and his boys were famously armed and dangerous.  In one of their raids, wild-west styled, one of “Avry’s boys”, a young men by the name of Gur Hamel, shot to death an old men from Beit Furik, who climbed up the hill to tend to his olives, on his own. I was following the story of the killer, who grew up in a religious but moderate and liberal kibutz, and found his way to a community of messianic Hassidic people in central Tel Aviv, and then to Ran’s outpost. The biblical woman refused to let us through the gate. Ran was not around. The secretary was clearly relieved. He was scared, not for his safety, but for mine. It was a cold day and the atmosphere was chilling. We drove down the hill and across to Beit Furik. Not many Israelis dared drive into the village at that time, but I felt much safer sitting in the victim’s house with children curiously climbing on my knees and checking the photographers equipment, listening to the story of the last day of his life, than I felt standing at the gate of Ran’s outpost, pleading with his wife with the dogs barking nervously and the secretary shivering next to me.

I realized that this is a profession where in the course of covering one story you get to cross between radically different worlds, in the course of one afternoon, trying to figure out one coherent story out of conflicting voices in different languages. This is what this is about, I thought, this is what we do.

I asked a few of GRN’s corresondents to tell me their stories of coming to be journalists in their own minds. Please add yours at the comment section.

Kerry Skyring, Vienna – It was “the battle at Terania Creek” a fight between environmentalists and loggers over the pristine rainforests of northern New South Wales which made a journalist of me. In 1979, when the battle began, I was a local ABC Radio presenter and not even classified as a journalist but this story taught me the basics i.e. where there’s conflict there’s a story and the job of reporting that story is an important one. It taught me about politics too. I remember covering a loud demonstration by loggers and their supporters who wanted to show their anger at government plans to stop logging of virgin forests. Their protest took place during a visit by the premier, Neville Wran. Wran, a clever politician, had his driver park the official car around the corner from the angry mob. Instead of arriving in the black limousine he simply walked in amongst the loggers, shaking their hands and saying “g’day, I’m Neville and I understand your problems.” They were totally disarmed. On this story I also had the chance to work with a true professional, our local ABC Journalist Murray Miles. We all need a mentor and Murray was one of the best. And, for most people, the story had a happy ending with the rainforests preserved for future generations.

Peter Bild, Berlin – Some believe foot-in-the-door, hard-nosed ruthlessness are the hallmarks of a good journalist. Not so – at least in my case. Those characteristics may get you that News of the World splash (it may also close down the paper), but being seen as a decent person and honest seeker after a complex truth can pay dividends, too. As it did for me. Combine that with a bit of luck and …

Way, way back – before many of you were born – I was the specialist Economics Correspondent sent to the West German capital of Bonn to figure out and report – on an on-going basis – German economic policy. It meant getting to know and be known by decision makers. A minor breakthrough – so I thought – came when I was invited to a private briefing dinner given by the German Finance Minister, at his invitation. I had become friendly with his personal assistant. It was held in the Bonn Press Club – and paid for on that occasion by the minister himself to support to support that generally exclusive domain of German journalists.

A quick drink and we sat down at beautifully laid tables for a rather fine dinner before hearing what the Minister had to say. German economic performance was so strong – plus ca change – that it was putting big strains on the international monetary system. I watched as the doyen of the local journalists – the unofficial head of the financial journalists’ lobby – approached my friend, the Minister’s assistant. There were glances in my direction. My friend came over to me: “I invited you and you can choose to stay. But Herr S. says he and his fellow journalists are unhappy at your presence. And I have to protect the interests of my Minister.” I got up and joined a poker evening that I had sacrificed in the interests of my employer.

The next day, my friend called me to apologise. I asked what the crew-cut S had said. He told me  “S wanted to know what the hell that ‘Beatle from Reuters” was doing there”. In fact I had missed rather little, no exclusives and no hot news. I thanked him for the call and told him there were no hard feelings. My hair wasn’t even that long.

Two weeks later I rang my Finance Ministry friend to clarify some technical detail in a press statement. He seemed distracted. “Forget that. It’s not important. But this is”. That very morning, he told me quite unattributeably,  the German Economic Cabinet – a closed group of just four Ministers – had met under the chairmanship of Chancellor Willy Brandt to talk about the inflow of inflationary dollars. At the time, the Bundesbank was obliged to sell Deutschmarks in the foreign exchange market to maintain a fixed exchange rate. The dollar inflow had become a torrent. “So what have they decided?” I asked.

He went silent and then whispered into the phone: “The Cabinet meets tomorrow and will close the foreign exchange market.” With the Bundesbank unable to intervene, it meant the D-Mark would be floated resulting in a major revaluation.

It seemed churlish at the time, but I told my friend that if I reported what he told me, without revealing my source, and if he were wrong, it would mean the end of my very new career in journalism.  He was right and forty years on I no longer miss the fine wines I was forced to skip. Being decent, playing fair and respecting the concerns of others can pay off, you know, even for a journalist.

Henry Peirse, GRN CEO, London – Throughout my late teens and early 20s my aim was to be a reporter. But it took moving to Zagreb for a substantial opportunity to land in my lap. My first meeting with Erich, the director of a language school in the Croatian capital got me a job teaching English but also cemented my path into covering the Balkan wars of the 90s. I was 22, the war in Croatia was on and it was about to kick off in Bosnia. I got a job writing, reading and generally preparing the news on Croatian Radio, this led to TV and onwards.

The whole thing was an alignment of timing, bad luck and coffee. I was in the right place to get a job, the region was beset with bad luck and spiralling out of control while nothing, got in the way of coffee.

Erich, very sadly is no longer with us, he was a father, Fulbright scholar, bass guitarist, fast talking ABC News correspondent and general troublemaker and my my first real mentor. Not a day goes by when he doesn’t pop into my mind and I wonder what sharp tongued witticism he would deliver in answer to any situation. Hvala covjece!

Hugh Schofield, Paris – In December 1987,  I introduced the English-speaking world to the word ‘intifada’.  You could say I discovered the word ‘intifada’ and put it in English print for the first time.  By rights I should be cited as a source in the Oxford dictionary,  and at the time it certainly made me think I  had journalism in my veins.  The trouble is that 25 years on,  I have no way of proving it.  Until someone digs out the clipping,  it’s just me vainly blowing my own boring trumpet.

What happened was this.  I was a young BBC reporter covering events on the West Bank and Gaza.  Not much had happened there for years, which was why it was a pretty lonely beat.  Only the BBC, with its Arabic Service and World Service, had the resources and interest to put someone there.  The dividends came when the Palestinian uprising began at the end of 87.  I remember travelling to Gaza after the first few shooting deaths, and asking some activist or other what was going on.  It felt differenmt, like something new was happening.  Ah yes, he said.  We call this the ‘intifada’  — the “shaking-off” of Israeli rule.

So off I went to write the tale, including the key quote,  and a few weeks later ‘intifada’ was everywhere.  I was a freelance at the time,  and I am pretty sure I wrote it for the Toronto Globe and Mail.  Or maybe the Irish Times.  Or maybe Middle East International.  Point is:  clippngs have I not.  So no way of proving my own greatest ‘coup de journalisme’.  I am beginning to think it wasn’t true, that I made the whole thing up.  But I did coin the word ‘intifada’ ….. didn’t I?

Kester Eddie, Budapest – that’s all very well, but I realised 20 years ago that what I really wanted to be was a candy floss salesman at a fairground. I’ve just never been able to make the jump…

Come on then, tell us your story!

Jul 13 2012

Silver Screen Inspirations – What is Your Favourite Journo Film

I had fun times this week writing our GRNLive blog, mainly because I didn’t quite write it; the London summer was dazzling my senses, and not in a good way (it hasn’t stopped raining for two weeks) and I realised I might have made a mistake. After all, most journalists leaving their own countries do it in order to pursue BETTER weather. I suddenly remembered myself as a young teenager in the early 80s in Jerusalem watching new films like Killing Fields and The Year of Living Dangerously (Peter Weir, 1982) and vowing to become a foreign correspondent sipping whiskey at some swanky club after a day of witnessing terrible evil from a wreckage site wearing one of those multi pocket vests, and getting nearly killed, but not quite.

Alas, by the time I got round to it, Jerusalem had provided its fair share of terrible evil and wreckage sites in need of coverage. Also, the levels of corruption in the city at the time made me think more All The President’s Men than Salvador. By the time I ventured to faraway places, the “whiskey at swanky clubs” became more prominent in my dream than the “nearly getting killed”. This made me wonder what films about journalism inspired other journalists. I asked a few of our diligent correspondents around the world to name their favourites, and they came up with great responses, taking me back in time to some great movies I’ve seen and inspiring me to watch others. I’ve added links to all. As everybody says they are going to seek their favourite film and re-watch it, I suspect there is going to be a soaring world wide demand for The Year of Living Dangerously this weekend. Let’s hope director Peter Weir still gets some royalties for it. I’d like to mention a few other great ones that seemed to have slipped through my little survey: Sidney Lumet’s ruthless Network about a cynical TV network exploiting the mental crisis of a popular anchorman to enhance rating (1976), the veteran His Girl Friday (1940) with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russel who plays one of the first female investigative journalists on screen.

Here are the choices of some of our correspondents, please add your own in the comments section. What have we missed? And how has your favourite journalism film influence you? Join our chat!

Charles Aniagolu, London/Nigeria – My best journalism film would have to be FROST/NIXON (2008), directed by Ron Howard, which focuses on the 1977 interviews between British journalist David Frost and former president Richard Nixon about the Watergate scandal that undermined Nixon’s presidency. This is journalism at its best, a battle of egos between a solid journalist probing for truth and a dodgy ex-president who had become a master of deception. I found the movie quite gripping. Nixon actually thought at the time that the interview would help exonerate him, but of course, it did the opposite, as Frost, with superb journalistic dexterity, tightened the noose that ultimately hung the ex-president.

Julian Ryall, Tokyo – Have to say that I have two favourite journalism movies (both of which I had on DVD, loaned out to friends and have not seen since!) The first is The Killing Fields and the second is The Year of Living Dangerously. I’m drawn to both because they’re both set in Asia and record events that were truly game-changers for the respective nations, Cambodia and Indonesia. Both have great soundtracks as well!

Henry Peirse, GRNLive CEO, London – My favourite film about news is Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, simple because the behind the scenes chaos is spot on, very well done and hysterically funny. Obviously the film is terribly politically incorrect and nothing like this must ever happen. But I’ve come across a few characters in my career who bear a striking resemblance to a number of the fruit cakes the film places throughout the newsroom. For a view of what a newsroom might be like, this isn’t the film to watch, but to get a view of how it might work, there are a good number of themes here right on the nail.

Carmen Gentile, Kabul – Coup plots, political intrigue and a young Sigourney Weaver in a sticky, hot climate are why “The Year of Living Dangerously” is my favourite journalism film. The story follows the missteps and triumphs of a young Australian journalist Mel Gibson on his first foreign post: Jakarta in the mid-1960s. Hamilton’s predecessor left him with no contacts and little hope of making sense of the story until he is taken under the wing by the kindly/shadowy dwarf Bill Kwan (a role for which Linda Hunt won an Oscar). “The Year of Living Dangerously” reminds me of when I first moved to Cairo in the late 1990s, a young, clueless kid with a Philosophy degree and a minor in Islamic studies trying to make sense of the modern Middle East. Oh, and Hamilton gets gun-stock smashed in the face during the Communist coup plot and suffers a detached retina. I feel for him, having had one of those.

Tom Clifford, PragueThe Year of Living Dangerously. Even the title gets the pulse racing.  With the opening credits rolling, Maurice Jarre’s theme music kicks in as puppets are manipulated. Not a word has been spoken yet but Peter Weir’s film already feels menacing. I dare any red-blooded male not be won over by a haughty Sigourney Weaver giving Mel Gibson the brush-off. The film is set in Jakarta in the 1960s on the eve of an attempted coup. Released in 1982, I did not see it until 1985 in Limerick, Ireland. Don’t forget, this was the age before Internet and even computers were not commonplace.  It was actually filmed in Manila and I was going to the Philippine capital in January to see an aunt of mine who was a Columbian missionary. In early 1986, life imitated art and Marcos was overthrown as People Power took to the streets. I filed my first stories, over dodgy fax machines and telephone lines, about events on the streets shown in the film. The film’s central message has stayed with me: the story is in front of you. Decades after I first saw it, I still hum the music.

Ken McCoy, Hollywood – Based on a true Story, The Bang Bang Club is about photojournalists who covered racial and apartheid massacres in South Africa. This movie was compelling for many reasons for photojournalists (new and vets) because of the personal territories that we deal with and that we have to face when we are new to a work zone. We have to separate ourselves from the story to not become the story. Thirdly, many people don’t understand how prepared we have to be for the unexpected. The new guy in the film follows a story lead and holds his ground and eventually gains allies – however, he had to figure the cost to himself and relationships. As I watched this film as a photojournalist, I felt the realism, confusion, distance, acclaim, joy, pain and complacency of the job. I recommend it to photojournalists worldwide so they may better understand that photojournalists have feelings, are real people who face difficult choices in doing our job in the most moral and ethical manner.

Kate Clark, Kabul – This is a weird one, but Lawrence of Arabia. Yes I know it’s about a European imperialist, not a journalist, but watching it at the BFI on the big screen in 2008, the film’s epic landscapes and sheer doggedness of Lawrence made me want to walk out of the cinema and get on my camel and go and do something elsewhere. London felt very small. I went first to Syria, then Afghanistan.

Julius Cavendish, Ivory CoastThe Front Page. It’s the ‘Scoop’ of the movie world. Scurrilous, sleazy, hard-drinking hacks hammering out grotesque fictions and snappy one-liners. Absolutely brilliant.

Jeta Xharra, Pristina –  Good Night and Good Luck, because it gives a good insight into how a paranoia can turn even a democratic government against its own citizens.

Daniel Schweimler, Buenos Aires – My favourite, although I’ve not seen it for some time, is Salvador, starring James Woods. It’s a little ‘Hollywood’ but depicts Latin America in a reasonable light and Woods with his flawed moral values but whose good heart wins out in the end was marvelous. I couldn’t say it inspired me to become a journalist or to come and live and work in Latin America but it certainly helped to feed the romantic notions I have about working in journalism. The civil war in El Salvador was a bit before my time but I did get to cover the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, and thought about Salvador while I was there.

Christopher Walker, London – Given that most foreign correspondents’ favourite novel is Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (some re-read it almost religiously every year), it may be no surprise that my runaway winner in the “favourite film about journalism” category is the 1987  ITV version of Scoop, scripted with loving care by novelist William Boyd – himself a former hack – and distributed on DVD by Network. With a star-studded cast including Michael Horden, Denholm Elliott, Donald Pleasence, Nicola Pagett, and directed by Gavin Millar of Foyle’s War fame, it hilariously combines the improbability of the original with a startling likeness to the antics of the international hack pack in action today.

The part of William Boot, mild-mannered nature columnist of the Daily Boot, who is the victim of whopping mistaken ID and ends up covering a war in the fictitious east African republic of Ishmaelia, is played with  marvelous insouciance by Michael Maloney of Notes on a Scandal, who ends up scooping the world and then retires  – despite herograms by the ton – to covering the everyday life of glebes on his family estate. Outstanding is Pleasance in the unforgettable role of Lord Copper, combining the blinkered ambition of a Beaverbrook with the stubbornness of a Murdoch. His hapless foreign editor, Salter (Denholm Elliott at his most timorous) gives new meaning to the famous phrase, now part of every educated Englishman’s lexicon: “Up to a point, Lord Copper.”

Nick Meo, London (when he can sit still) – I suppose the film that made the greatest impression on me was Salvador, the Oliver Stone film about the 1980s civil war in the Central American country. It was all a bit rock and roll, over the top, and anti-establishment – one of the crazy freelances drops acid in the cocktail of a TV hotshot just before she goes live on air to spout propaganda she’s been given by the man from the US embassy – and the anti-hero freelance journalist, James Woods, nearly gets castrated by a militiaman. I haven’t seen it for years and I’m sure it is very dated, but it certainly made journalism look exciting and it does show the horrors of these kind of wars and the bizarre world of journalists covering them. There have been times in my freelance career when Salvador has seemed like a pretty good guide to foreign freelance reporting.

To my mind The Killing Fields is the classic. I visited Cambodia several times when the Khmer Rouge trials were being set up, and watched the film there. It is a gripping and masterly account of what happened.
A couple of days ago on a plane back from Cairo I saw Bel Ami, about a cynical adventurer and seducer in Belle Epoch Paris, played by the guy from the teenie vampire films, which I enjoyed. He starts his career working as a hack journalist in the dog-eat-dog world of a political journal.


Your turn now, do tell…

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