Muddy waters in the Middle East

Threats of terror and aggression are often more than a little convenient for some.
Take the latest Iranian incident in which five speedboats are reported to have “harassed three US navy ships at the weekend”.
The story comes as George Bush prepares to travel to the Middle East to condemn the “Iranian threat”.
Neat, isn’t it?
The BBC reports that official media in Iran reported the incident with some “scepticism”. Perhaps the BBC might try doing the same.
Instead, it tonight highlights a White House warning to Iran against “provocative actions that could lead to a dangerous incident in the future”.
According to a Pentagon spokesman: “The Iranian boats were operating at distances and speeds that showed reckless, dangerous and potentially hostile intent.”
He said at least some of the boats were visibly armed. Much like the US warships then, in waters thousands of miles from their home.
The BBC reports that the Pentagon insisted that the three US vessels were in international waters.
And the Beeb goes on: “The incident follows a row that erupted last March when Iranian Revolutionary Guards captured 15 British sailors and held them for nearly two weeks.
Iran said the crew had strayed into Iranian waters, a claim which Britain disputed.”
To that it might be worth adding the following: the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee took some time investigating that incident.
It reported: “We conclude that there is evidence to suggest that the map of the Shatt al-Arab
waterway provided by the Government was less clear than it ought to have been. The Government was fortunate that it was not in Iran’s interests to contest the accuracy of the map.”
Martin Pratt, of the International Boundaries Research Unit, Durham University, told the committee that he believed the map published by the Ministry of Defence following the sailors’ arrest was “certainly an oversimplification of reality, and I think it could reasonably be argued that it was deliberately misleading”.

Say ‘Hello’ To Hellstorm Seven

Vox pops can be the scourge of the reporter’s life.
For a start, they mean mixing with the ‘public’. Face to face.
A friend of mine had to go out to an M4 service station and ask travellers what they thought of the toilets – they had just one some award.
Well, one, it’s embarrassing standing with a camera and stopping people as they leave the loo.
And, two, it’s one of the unwritten duties of the reporter to rebel against the daft things newsdesks ask them to do.
My friend got around it this way.
He stopped people getting on a coach going towards London and asked them an entirely different question.
Back in the Cardiff newsroom he made up their names, rewrote their answers so that they gave glowing references for the service station toilets and then sent their photos and ‘quotes’ for publication.
No one was any the wiser. The newsdesk, the London daytrippers who would never see the newspaper or, indeed, the readers.
They do vox pops in Iraq too. British reporters hunker down in the back of Humvees so that when someone back in London asks them what “the Iraqi people” think, they have a response.
The sharp-toothed watchdogs at Media Lens highlighted a vox pop aired on Newsnight recently.
The BBC reporter was travelling in a Humvee called “Hellstorm Seven”. (American “peacekeepers” always have such suitable call-signs, don’t they? It must be so reassuring when “SuddenViolentDeath Three” and “CollateralDamage Four” arrive at your door.)
The hack jumped from the vehicle to point his microphone at the locals and to ask “whether they feel secure” as the surge happens all around them.
“The security situation, we are relaxed about it,” said the man. “We come and open our shops, even though business is down. There is stability now.”
An American soldier asked another Iraqi: “So you’re happy we’re here.”
“Oh, very, very, very happy,” came the eager reply.
Now, behind the reporter and the kindly-looking soldier, remember, are the soldiers of Hellstorm Seven.
These guys can barely move for weaponry. They make Robocop look like Gandhi.
And they will be back later on another patrol – when the BBC is back in the Green Zone.
What does the reporter expect these people to say?
“No, I’m very pissed off. Would you mind giving me my neighbourhood back?”

World Perspectives

This morning’s lead story on the British Broadcasting Corporation’s World website:
A crowd of “between 20,000 and 50,000 people” have marched in Budapest to call for the resignation of Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany after he lied to the nation.

This morning’s main story on the Bahrain-based Gulf Daily News website:
“Tens of thousands of protesters” have marched in Manchester to call for the resignation of British Prime Minister Tony Blair after he lied to the nation.

Lying in state?

There were different decisions made at the BBC and ITV news conferences this morning.
The BBC concentrated primarily on the Milosevic funeral (reporting initially that there were around 20,000 mourners in Belgrade and then having to revise that estimate to a much higher figure).
Its second story was the Government’s Pensions Day consultation.
ITV on the other hand led with the growing number of protesters in Parliament Square preparing to march against the continuing, bloody shambles in Iraq.
It followed that with the Milosevic funeral.
Interesting how the broadcasts from the BBC managed to ignore the anti-war protest and replace it with a Government PR exercise. State broadcaster, anyone?

WHY THE NEWS IS BAD FOR OUR REGIONAL PRESS

Last week, the National Assembly’s culture committee discussed Trinity Mirror’s role as the dominant newspaper group in Wales. It owns Western Mail, North Wales Daily Post, Wales on Sunday, South Wales Echo and the Celtic group of weeklies which serve the valleys.
Regional newspapers make huge profits, but their story is one of redundancies, strike ballots and doom-laden predictions for the future. Here’s an article I wrote before the committee meeting looking at why newspapers are making such bad news. The comments’ section has updates.

WHY THE NEWS IS BAD FOR OUR REGIONAL PRESS

Campaigns have always been a major feature of the regional newspaper.
Helping to keep hospitals, playgrounds, post offices and schools open are key roles for the Press.
Now, though, it is the newspapers’ own places in our communities which are under threat, with analysts predicting a bleak and bitter future for Wales and south-west England.
Despite massive profits, the media companies which dominate the local press are cutting jobs to reduce costs and further increase profit margins.
The changes are not being dictated by reader demand but by shareholder power and boardroom politics, bringing bosses into conflict with unions, politicians and eventually, experts predict, with readers and the communities themselves.
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has predicted 2006 will be “a constant fight to defend our members from this onslaught”.
It highlights two newspaper giants, Trinity Mirror (TM) and Northcliffe, as being at the centre of that fight. Both are essential providers of news and information in Wales and the south-west.
TM owns the largest newspaper centre in Wales, Cardiff’s Thomson House, home to Western Mail, South Wales Echo, Wales on Sunday and the Celtic group of weekly newspapers. It also owns the Daily Post, the morning paper covering north Wales.
Northcliffe, the regional newspapers arm of Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT), owns the Bristol Evening Post, the Western Daily Press, the South Wales Evening Post in Swansea and the Torquay Herald Express.
The titles continue to make huge profits in spite of competition from the internet.
TM made a profit of £250m last year. Thomson House, alone, had a £55m turnover with a whooping 35.5 per cent profit-margin – putting the Western Mail and Echo Ltd (WME) among the top five profit-makers in Wales.
Northcliffe enjoyed operating profits of £102m in 2005, £1m or 1.5 per cent ahead of the previous year. Advertising grew by two per cent across the group and by 10 per cent in Bristol.
However, despite swelling their coffers, both companies are making cuts and axing jobs.
TM announced it was cutting 44 full-time job equivalents before Christmas. An NUJ campaign backed by senior politicians – including UK Foreign Office minister Kim Howells and Wales Education Minister Jane Davidson – later ensured none of those leaving would be made compulsory redundant and a plan to merge the editor jobs at the Pontypridd Observer and Rhondda Leader was scrapped.
The company narrowly avoided industrial action but the local chapel (NUJ branch) is still balloting its members to “underline the strength of feeling about this issue and also put down a marker for the future”.
“We are not prepared to stand idly by while faceless executives on huge salaries in London destroy jobs in Wales and wreck long established newspapers,” says Martin Shipton, of the chapel committee.
Northcliffe has been put up for sale following extensive cost cutting. In Swansea 67 jobs were lost when the printing press at the Evening Post was closed, while staff at the company’s Bristol centre are involved in a bitter dispute with the company over 36 redundancies.
The company plans to merge business, sport, features, pictures and copy sub-editing departments at (the mainly rural serving) Western Daily Press and (urban) Bristol Evening Post so that the same journalists would produce pages for both papers.
Unions say this will to “tear the heart out of two great papers”.
NUJ rep Derek Brooks says demonstrations outside the Temple Way offices have been attended by more than 100 people. “We have received backing from every section of the local community in our campaign against these senseless and unnecessary cuts,” he adds.
Journalists at Bristol voted in favour of a strike before Christmas but delayed the action as the union attempted to negotiate with the company.
Northcliffe’s Aim Higher project plans to save £30m over the next two years with further job losses expected at Plymouth and at Cornwall and Devon Media, publishers of The Cornishman, The West Briton and The Cornish Guardian.
So why are our regional newspapers in such a mess?
Dr James Thomas, a lecturer at Cardiff School of Journalism, believes part of the reason is because the large media groups enjoy monopolies on newspaper advertising in the areas they serve.
“The circulation of regional newspapers has declined over the last 20 years but, on the other hand, they are very profitable,” he states. “It’s a paradox and one which I suspect the people at Trinity and other newspaper groups have woken up to. Now they effectively want to get rid of the journalists and make money from the advertising, almost turning the papers into free-sheets relying on central news sources which don’t cost them very much.
“Their profits come from advertising and providing they can keep the circulation at a level which won’t scare away the advertisers they are happy.”
However, Dr Thomas adds, low morale combined with the industry’s low wages, is bound to have an impact on the reader.
“How journalists are treated affects newspaper content,” he says. “Effectively if the journalists are badly treated, the readers are badly treated. Readers are already being badly served.”
Regional newspapers will be the focus of much attention over coming months.
At Westminster, more than 70 MPs have signed separate early day motions stating their concerns about events at TM and Northcliffe.
In Wales, where two new dailies – one in Welsh, the other in English – are planned to launch this year, National Assembly member Leighton Andrews, a former head of BBC public affairs, has tabled a statement of opinion urging TM to reconsider its staff-cutting policies and urging Competition Commission to review the South Wales market.
This Thursday (JANUARY 19) the Assembly’s culture committee is due to hold an evidence-taking inquiry into the “role of TM in the media market in Wales”. WME managing director Keith Dye and Western Mail editor Alan Edmunds will be among those appearing.
AMs, according to committee member Lisa Francis, have “grave concerns about the future of the Welsh media”.
Political consensus on the issue was illustrated by a statement issued jointly by Plaid, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems about the TM cuts, describing the policy as one of a “company with both eyes on its profit margins rather than maintaining the excellence of its newspapers”.
The statement added: “These cuts will lead to poorer coverage of local politics and community issues, and will seriously undermine local democracy and accountability.”
However, Dr Thomas called for greater intervention to safeguard the Press. “Unless there is some kind of public intervention to pressurise the dominant commercial interest I would sadly conclude that the only way is down,” he says. “I hope I’m wrong.”

:from The Big Issue Cymru and The Big Issue South West, January 16-22, 2006

How to read a stranger’s diary (Blogging in Wales)

I’ve developed a taste for something a little unusual.
It’s slightly strange, vaguely self-centred and I do it all alone.
I’ve seen others at it too. Some make it dirty.
No, I ain’t eating Pot Noodles.
It’s writing a web blog – an online diary or digest of news stories, chat, opinion, vitriol, lustful thoughts or plain rubbish.
Blogging is what they call it and it is becoming big news. Often the blog is even the messenger bringing the news itself.
Many of those which have gained notoriety have been either smutty or nutty: blogs of the sexual fantasist, rumour monger or conspiracy theorist. The most famous, Belle de Jour, the anonymously-written, intimate adventures of a London prostitute, spawned a frenzy of media interest and a bestselling book.
But, a little like ‘high-class hooker’ Belle de Jour herself, blogging can be what you want it to be.
Blogs have been developing in the United States since the early 1990s but ‘blogging’ only made it into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2003 and neither my US or UK spell-checker recognises blog, blogger, blogging or blogged.
Now though a number of blogs have sprung up in Wales.
Blogcymru.com provides a starting place to find the most regularly-updated efforts, while britblog.com lists more than 100 Welsh sites. Titles include Taffia Don, Never Knowingly Wrong, Smiling Under Buses and Chronicles of a Lonely Genius, a name which speaks for so many bloggers.
I’m distinctly z-list as yet but I’m there at whatiswales.blogspot.com.
Some people just want to talk, others really have something to say.
The blogger at A Life In Wales movingly takes readers through the painful stages of her illness and her battle with a tumour. “As my 50th birthday is just a few days before Christmas I’d hoped to be over and done with hospitals by then but it seems I will be carrying this into 2006,” she wrote recently from her home somewhere in rural west Wales.
Meanwhile, there is a Kerry Katona version of Belle de Jour, Chav Mum, a gaudy red and yellow blog which smells of chip paper.
Experiences include an unsatisfying ‘romantic moment’ behind Cardiff International Arena and a cab ride home with a friend. “(The driver) said, ‘Where you going?’ We said, ‘Home!’ and laughed our heads off. He said, ‘Which caravan park’s that then?’ Cheeky bugger. Ashanti p***** on his seat in revenge.”
Politicians are in on the act. Peter Black, David Davies and Leighton Andrews are dedicated bloggers, while Brynle Williams hasn’t had anything to say since last year’s message on January 15, 2005.
The blog’s sense of immediacy has seen some newspapers, particularly The Guardian, grasping at them hungrily. It has developed not only its own blogs but is referencing others.
Mainstream news comes increasingly from fewer sources. Wire copy means that a single interpretation of a story is likely to be read by people around world: the same words run by daily newspapers from Swansea to Scunthorpe, and often to Sydney and Singapore too.
In addition, recent research has shown that both Americans and Europeans trust the opinions of “average people” more than most authorities.
It was therefore of little surprise that the invasion of Iraq proved a boon to bloggers.
Salam Pax became world famous with his Baghdad diary, while hundreds of American blogs launched on both sides of the debate – some started by members of the military.
Bristol law student Jo Wilding worked hard to bring truth from the Fallujah (and had her work celebrated by John Pilger). Youth Aid Iraq-organisers Kevin and Helen Williams, of Newport, South Wales, did the same from Baghdad.
In many ways, modern life has made people feel weaker and further from power. No matter how many march against a war, it goes ahead; while, in the office, anonymous, fat-cat shareholder greed outweighs the hard-work, commitment and loyalty of any employee.
So why not check out the blogs? They are not all intelligent, trustworthy or worth reading.
But they give voice to all sorts of people. Support your local blogger.

(as published in The Big Issue Cymru, New Year edition)

Rebekah who?

Today’s media excitement over the arrest – and subsequent release without charge – of The Sun editor Rebekah Wade shows how the Press loves to get over excited about one of its own.
The initial reaction by journalists was to report the incident from the point of view of her arrest – when it was the alleged victim, her husband Ross Kemp, who is of far more interest to the public.
No non-journalist of my acquaintance cares one fig who is editing which national newspaper.
But thirteen million people tuned in to see Kemp return to EastEnders last week.

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