Saturday, September 20, 2008

Woolly Days on tour

Posting here will be on an irregular basis for the next few months as I'm heading overseas to Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

New Al Qaeda video affirms Bin Laden is still alive

Al Qaeda have released a new video marking the seventh anniversary of 9/11 which claims Osama Bin Laden and former Taliban leader Mullah Omar are both alive and well. The 90 minute video also contains speeches by Al Qaeda’s number two Ayman al-Zawahiri and the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq Abu Ayyub al-Masri, (also known as Hamza al-Muhajir) as well as a reading of the will of 9/11 Flight 93 hijacker Saeed al Ghamdi. Al Qaeda’s video production arm As Sahab released the footage in full on jihadi websites this week after Al Jazeera had broadcast excerpts on 8 September.

The full video comes just days after two suicide car bombers claimed the lives of 17 people (including 6 attackers) at the US embassy in Sana the capital of Yemen. A group calling itself Islamic Jihad has claimed responsibility for the attack but the group is almost certainly linked to Al Qaeda. Bin Laden’s father Muhammad was born in Yemen and Osama remains extremely popular in the Gulf state. A large percentage of his followers and all his bodyguards are Yemenis or from the nearby Assir region of southern Saudi Arabia. Al Qaeda’s first ever attack bombed US soldiers in Aden in 1991. And one of its most notorious attack before 9/11 was on the USS Cole also at Aden in October 2000 in which 17 American sailors died.

The British based Palestinian journalist Abdel Bari Atwan would not be surprised to hear the news that Osama is still alive. Atwan is the editor of the London based Arabic newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi and the author of the book The Secret History of Al Qa’ida. He is also one of the few Western based journalists to interview Bin Laden in person. He tells the story of that hair-raising interview in the first chapter of his book. After a secret and dangerous trip via Peshawar and Jalalabad, he arrived at the Tora Bora caves in the Winter of 1996. Atwan complained to Bin Laden how cold it was in the caves. Bin Laden said he was lucky; when the UK Independent journalist Robert Fisk arrived, it was Summer and the caves were infested by scorpions.

Atwan was struck by how modestly Bin Laden lived. His manner, austere living habits, and renouncement of comfort and wealth have all contributed to his air of a champion of revolution and rebellion to many Muslims. He was born in Riyadh in 1957, of a Syrian mother and a self-made construction contractor father Muhammad Awad bin Laden. Muhammad was from the Hadramaut region of southern Yemen whose inhabitants are renowned for their business prowess. Bin Laden senior fit the mould and rose from being a labourer to a billionaire presiding over the largest construction empire in the Arab world.

Osama was the forty-third of fifty-three siblings and the family was adopted by the Saudi Royal Family after his father died in a plane crash. Osama was just 10 years old. He was educated at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah where he studied Islamic trends under Muhammad Qutb (brother of the Egyptian Father of Islamism Sayyid Qutb) and Abdullah Azzam. Azzam was a highly influential Palestinian-born scholar and theologian, and a central figure in preaching for jihad.

Azzam became Osama’s mentor and encouraged him to join the mujahideen rising in Afghanistan against the Soviet invasion. He moved there in 1982 and became a key role in fundraising and organising Saudi volunteers for the jihad. He set up his own camps and created a register to inform families of those who were killed. The name of the register was Al Qaeda (“the base” or “the foundation”). After the Soviets withdrew in 1989, he and Azzam fled back to Saudi Arabia, having been warned by Pakistani intelligence that the pair were a target for CIA assassination.

The Saudis placed him under house arrest in 1990 after he was too outspoken about the threat from the “godless regime” of Saddam Hussein. He also predicted Iraq would invade Kuwait. When the panicked Saudis invited US troops into the country after his prediction came to pass, Osama described the deployment of the “infidel soldiers” as the “biggest shock of his life”. He used his royal connections to get a passport and moved to Pakistan and then to Afghanistan where he prepared to organise a new jihad against the invaders of his homeland.

After threats on his life, Osama moved to Sudan in 1991 where he was made welcome by the Bashir Islamic regime which had taken power in a coup two years earlier. Osama invested $200 million in Sudanese infrastructure including an airport in Port Sudan and the 400km Defiance Highway between Port Sudan and the capital Khartoum. From here, he launched his first attacks against the US, the Yemen incident mentioned earlier and he was also instrumental in bringing down two Black Hawk helicopters in the US 1993 mission in Mogadishu.

But under increasing international pressure, Sudan looked for a way to expel its increasingly dangerous guest. In 1996 Bashir told him Sudan could no longer protect him from assassination. Osama took the hint and moved his operation back to Afghanistan. The country was then in chaos as the Taliban were taking city after city. Osama was initially wary but changed his mind after meeting Mullah Omar in Spring 1996. He gave his bayat (pledge of allegiance) to Omar and threw his forces into battle against the Northern Alliance. The safe haven provided by Omar’s successful capture of Kabul allowed Osama to do longer term planning against his implacable enemy – the US.

That year, he faxed Atwan’s newspaper his declaration of war against the US, which he called the “jihad against the Americans occupying the land of the two sacred places” (Mecca and Medina). Atwan believes that planning for 9/11 started in 1998. Under the influence of his Egyptian 2IC Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Osama saw the advantages of the military strategy of suicide bombing. They looked for recruits with religious zeal, courage, mental agility, a clean criminal record, and those with no spouses or family to support. There were hundreds of eager applicants.

Al Qaeda are also sophisticated users of the Internet. Electronic jihad is a “sacred duty” in which believers are called on to defend Islam and also hack into, destroy American and Israeli websites. Jihadi groups have four elements: a leader, religious guide, members and IT specialists. Prior to his death in 2006, Iraqi Al Qaeda leader Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi gained enormous status almost entirely due to his use of the Internet. He averaged nine communications a day and released numerous videos on the Net. Al Qaeda is now believed to have almost five thousand websites promoting the movement.

Al Qaeda has been mostly extremely successful in meeting its goals. Its 9/11 operation cost $500,000 to fund and caused billions in financial damage. American troops left Saudi Arabia in 2003 and a year later Spain overthrew its pro Iraqi invasion right-wing government just three days after the Al Qaeda killed 200 people in the Madrid bombings. Osama has tapped into the worldwide Muslim umma, most of whom see him as a David figure, bringing down the American Goliath. As Atwan says, not many Muslims necessarily want Wahhabi-style caliph rule that Osama says he wants to bring back, but that is not an issue for now.

Osama is hoping to stretch American hegemony in the Middle East to breaking point (much like how the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989). Then, he believes, it will be easy overthrow the weak and corrupt Arab and Gulf regimes once US power in the region is destroyed. As Atwan concludes matter-of-factly and chillingly “as long as connections continue to be made between US policy, actual or perceived, and the continuing instability in much of the Middle East, we can expect that Al-Qaeda will grow stronger and expand the sphere of its operations”.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The crowd of Turin: The application of wisdom in chess and football

Through a recent article in Club Troppo, I heard about a couple of excellent blog posts by Michael Nielson. Nielson is a Queensland educated writer and scientist who now lives in Toronto. In the first post, Nielson outlines six rules for rewriting that Troppo’s Nicholas Gruen rightly calls “simple but compelling”. Gruen then asks his readers to see how Nielson himself measures up to these rules in the second post, a fascinating story about “the chess game of the century”.

In this post Nielson talks about the famous chess game in 1999 played over the Internet between then-world champion Garry Kasparov and “the World”. Over 50,000 individuals from more than 75 countries participated in the game. One move was made every 24 hours with the World’s move decided by a vote which was open to everyone. Kasparov won a fascinating contest in 62 moves after 51 percent of the World team voted to resign. Afterwards Kasparov called it “the greatest game in the history of chess.” He said it was never clear who was going to win and he expended more energy on this one game than any other in his career. Although Kasparov was far better than any single contributor to the World team, collectively they produced one of the strongest games ever played.

The idea that a bunch of amateurs would give the best in the business a run for their money should not strange to anyone who has read James Surowiecki’s classic 2004 book, The Wisdom of Crowds. In a series of remarkable stories, Surowiecki shows how mass collective decision making consistently beats that of the few, even when those few are experts. His thesis was that groups are remarkably intelligent and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.

Will Brooks
, a former BBC sportswriter, took this idea to heart when he founded the company My Football Club in 2007. His idea was a fan-owned and fan-run football club in which the each of the owners would have an equal say in the day-to-day management of the team. With the help of thousands of subscribers, Brooks bought a controlling interest in the Football Conference (England’s fifth football tier) team Ebbsfleet United FC based in Kent. The fans are now the legal owners of the club and members vote on team selection and player transfers.

The club is doing very well under the crowdsourcing arrangement. There are currently 30,000 internet members who pay £35 annually for the privilege. Twenty percent of the membership login to the club’s website every day, posting thousands of messages and debating issues such which players to recruit to how to increase attendance at games. The club hopes to gain promotion to the football league in the next few years. Already Brooks experiment has paid off on the field. This year Ebbsfleet United won the FA Trophy (the highest accolade for semi-professional teams) in May beating Torquay 1-0 at Wembley, becoming the first team ever from Kent to win the trophy. At the club’s request, the game was made available as a live online video feed to satisfy members in the US, Australia and across Europe.

The Ebbsfleet experiment in trust and mass participation stands in stark contrast to the Italian experience. In “The Wisdom of the Crowds”, Surowiecki discussed the corruption that tears at the heart of Italian football. In 2002 Italy were knocked out of the World Cup by South Korea after Byron Moreno, the Ecuadorian referee made two crucial errors that gifted the co-hosts victory. Surowiecki noted how Italian fans didn’t blame Moreno for his incompetence but instead accused him of “criminal behaviour” in league with football’s governing body FIFA. If Italy lost, then it had to be because of a global conspiracy for which Moreno was just the front.

Although no evidence emerged in the weeks that followed to support the conspiracy theory, Italian newspapers and fans remained convinced it existed. Surowiecki put it down to the fact that corruption is assumed to be the natural state of affairs in Italian football. Every season some new scandal emerges and claims of corrupt referees are commonplace. Games are negative, foul-ridden affairs where defeat is never accepted as an outcome of a fair contest. There is a total lack of trust between participants and the system is geared to protecting interest at the cost of entertainment. Cheating on the field of play is commonplace and even encouraged. This problem was noted by AC Milan playmaker Gennaro Gattuso when he said in 2003: “The system prevents you from telling the truth and being yourself.”

Gattuso is not alone in despising the system, but no one seems to be able to address the issue. In the absence of trust, the pursuit of self-interest is the only strategy that makes sense. Surowiecki says Italian football has failed to find a good solution to the problem of co-operation. Co-operation problems involve more than just co-ordination, he says. To solve these problems, the members of a group need to adopt a broader definition of self-interest than that of maximising profit in the name of short term demands. Trust is needed. Successful co-operation relies on people who repeatedly deal with each other over time. The promise of continued successful interaction keeps the participants in line. The key to co-operation is what Robert Axelrod called “the shadow of the future.” Or as Surowiecki says, the best approach is to be “nice, forgiving, and retaliatory.”

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Future of Journalism Queensland 5: Techniques and technology

This is the fifth and final post in a series about the Future of Journalism Queensland summit held last Saturday at Brisbane’s QUT campus. See links to parts one, two, three, and four. The final session was entitled “Tools or toys: techniques and technology for the digital age. The session was moderated by the ABC Landline’s executive producer Peter Lewis. The panellists were The Courier-Mail’s online chief sub-editor John O’Brien, citizen journalist and CEO of Perth Norgmedia, Bronwen Clune and the editor of news.com.au, David Higgins.

The numbers of people at the conference had dwindled significantly by the time of the final session and moderator Lewis jokingly threatened to lock the doors to keep the rest of the audience in. He also claimed organisers had “saved the best till last” and he may have been right. Lewis began describing himself as a Luddite and asked his panellists how do old technologies fit in. Higgins talked about his audience profile and how they accessed news.com.au differed depending on the time of day. He said that between 7am and 9am, it was peak time for mobile phone access with 150,000 people accessing the site via mobiles. Then as people arrived at their work they logged on to the website from their offices. Higgins said the industry needed more tools to further granulate their audience tastes. “We need to figure out what stories fit where”.

John O’Brien from the Courier-Mail’s online team said they needed to be selective about what stories are carried across each platform. He said the important part was getting a good headline to “lock in” customers to their site. Bronwen Clune spoke next. The head of citizen journalism site Perth Norg said that for time-poor people, online was the best way of consuming news. But she said that print still has “a long life” ahead. Clune said that a different writing style was needed for online content, a style that was less formal, more personal and opinionated and not bound by the traditional “inverted pyramid” format of hard newspaper articles.

Clune then talked about Amy Gahran’s article about journalism culture in which she described the "Priesthood Syndrome". This syndrome describes the assumption that traditional journalists are the sole source of news that can and should be trusted. This supposedly gives them a privileged and sacred role that society is ethically obligated to support. Clune said citizen journalism was dispensing with the priesthood syndrome. She said mainstream journalists were allowing comments in their “blogs” but were not engaging with their audiences.

Higgins also said his online organisation was dispensing with traditional journalistic practices such as the “inverted pyramid” (the practice where print journalists write their article paragraphs in descending order of importance so that subeditors can cut from the bottom up if newspaper space is at a premium). Article length varied from print to online but there was no hard and fast rule as which format might provide more information. News.com.au are also experimented with “chat boxes” where audiences can engage with the journalist in the side bar of the screen. The speedier delivery of online news also means that journalists use tools such as Twitter in the field. They then can, and do, go back later to add more information as it arises and in Higgins’ words “craft a more traditional story”. The “day after” newspaper story is no longer straight reportage but has more detail and analysis.

Lewis asked the panel who was “minding the gates” in this new dynamic environment. Higgins admitted that journalists were now doubling as their own subeditors. “You’re constructing the story in front of the audience”, he said. Clune said citizen journalists relied on their audience to pick up errors. She noted the fact that her provocative blog post entitled “A letter to love-stricken Fairfax journalists” (written during their industrial action last week) had incorrectly spelt the title word as “love-striken” until a Courier-Mail journalist pointed out the error to her. Clune’s response was “Thanks for pointing it out. All fixed now…That’s essentially subbing isn’t it?” (For what its worth, I believe “striken” was a totally appropriate word to describe the Fairfax journos!)

John O’Brien said his motto was “your readers know more than you do”. Nevertheless, he said that his comment thread moderators needed to be well trained to deal with flame wars and potential defamation threats. He noted that as a result of Fairfax’s mass sackings, the company got rid of their in-house specialist lawyers which could have an unintended (or possibly intended) “chilling effect” if controversial stories can not be vetted before publication. Lewis said “the law has not caught with (digital) reality”. O’Brien agreed and talked about the importance of cleaning up errors as soon as possible after the fact, however, he said, “mistakes live on in Google cache or if someone has taken a grab”. Higgins said he would advise against the “open moderation” model of the ABC, because “you will get sued and there is nothing you can do about it.”

The panel then took a set of diverse questions from the audience. Clune said bloggers offer a diverse voice, “which we don’t have in the Australian media”. When asked about tools of the trade, Higgins said that the best camera for a journalist was “the one they happen to be carrying at the time”. He did add that PDA devices could be useful for reporting from the field but “what you have in your hand is most important”. Clune said she was a fan of the Iphone which “allowed for participation as well as consumption”. Clune also promoted the micro-blogging concept of Twitter where “disorganised news very quickly organises itself”.

Higgins talked about the importance of Search Engine Optimisation and getting journalists trained in how to attract a high Google rating with their headlines. He said making a story more effective was ‘less about brand, and more about mobilising the story and putting it out there in places such as Facebook”. Lewis asked him whether there were concerns over what effect this would have on the journalist and whether the Internet deliberately attracts dumbed down content. O’Brien said the effect was not all bad. He said celebrity stuff drives other hard news traffic. Higgins also disagreed. “Websites are the way journalists set them up,” he said. “Its not a management decision. He said his team edits the site “in real time with incredible amounts of information”. However, like any other media product, he said, “you place them where you think they will get the most traffic”.

Unfortunately I had to leave as the panel wrapped up and did not catch Chris Warren’s closing remarks to the conference. Nonetheless, I believe it was an extremely valuable day. While the immediate future of the more traditional and hierarchical forms of journalism remains grim, there are a number of exciting avenues and new models available that make me believe a new Gutenberg revolution is at hand. Despite a continued dwindling of resources, there will continue to be, I believe, a home for quality journalism in the big “media of record.” But they will be supported and challenged by a plethora of small independent online media as well as norgs, blogs, micro-blogs, citizen journalism, magazines, non-fiction books, wikis and social media projects that will keep print-democracy flourishing in the years to come. The challenge will be connecting all the dots that lead to the people formerly known as the audience.

Future of Journalism Queensland 4: Bloggers

This is the fourth in a series of posts about the Future of Journalism Queensland summit held last Saturday at the QUT campus in central Brisbane. See links to parts one, two, and three. This one was about bloggers and was subtitled “amateur netizens or professionals of the future?” The session was moderated by the ABC’s Christen Tilley, a senior producer and opinion editor at ABC News Online. The panellists were freelance journalist Marian Edmunds, sociologist and blogger Mark Bahnisch and Dr Axel Bruns, a senior lecturer in the Creative Industries Faculty at QUT.

Tilley began the discussion by quoting at length from Mark Day’s article in the Australian last week. Day said the only model that could support investigative journalism was “the traditional advertiser-supported model that has sustained newspapers for more than a century” and said blogging won’t work as an alternative. He said citizen journalism “hasn’t happened and is not likely to.” In Day’s view, effort should not be wasted on blogs and instead editors should focus on creating news. For Day that meant: “revealing information about the communities in which they work, setting agendas for discussion, reporting events figuratively over the back fence, and using this to add value to the essentially free flow of breaking news and information accessible virtually anywhere.”

Marian Edmunds spoke first in response. Edmunds is a very experienced journalist who has worked in Australia, London and Hong Kong on such publications as the Financial Times (fulltime) and the Australian Financial Review, and the Weekend Australian as a freelancer. She now blogs at “Will write for money”. She began by describing why she had turned to blogging. “For me,” she said, “it being in touch with people who are not normally sources or contacts…voices we don’t normally hear that provide local colour”. Edmunds advised those starting out to look at the business models and create your own space. But the fundamentals of journalism still applied: "Learn the craft," she advised.

Mark Bahnisch, custodian of perhaps Australia’s most influential blog Larvatus Prodeo, attacked the issue of Mark Day more directly. He firstly pointed out the absurdity of Day attacking blogs in a space entitled “Mark Day blogs”. Bahnisch said the debate between journalism and blogging was poorly presented. There were many aspects to the debate, but…“It has little to do with blogging and more to do with changes in journalist profile,” he said. “(Their) identity was at risk from online competition and changes in the industrial environment”.

Bahnisch pointed out that bloggers represent an “incredibly diverse” range of opinions. He blasted the newspaper stereotype of “bloggers in pyjamas” and said journalists were blaming bloggers for their own problems. The debate had little to do with bloggers and more to do with changes in the profile of journalism. “The underlying angst of what is a journalist is projected onto the nefarious figure of bloggers (who will) steal their spot,” he said. Bahnisch could not see why the narrative was one of competition and said that journalists were using “imaginary demons” to “keep the opposition alive”.

Axel Bruns took up the narrative at this point. He also disputed Day’s view and said there were hundreds of different forms of blogging. He pleaded for the debate to move on from the “us and them” and said the line between professional and amateurs had changed with the Crikified blogs of Possums Pollytics and The Poll Bludger. Possum’s free analysis gave the mainstream media a run for its money and set off the “who owns the polls” debate in The Australian. Bruns noted that this was a peculiarly Australian problem and harked on the notorious 2007 The Australian (newspaper) editorial which claimed that “unlike Crikey, we understand Newspoll because we own it.” Bruns said it was Rupert Murdoch who owned Newspoll not The Australian.

Bahnisch said blogs were a “distinct space for micro communicators and micro publishers on line”. Blogs create a community that do not rely on “arm’s length sources”. He pointed out how different they were to George Megalogenis’s so-called blog which appealed for civility claiming a “significant minority” of bloggers begin their posts with an assumption that everyone who disagrees with them is a “moron”. Bahnisch quoted Trevor Cook’s response which called out a wonderful comment response to Megalogenis that laid the blame squarely at The Australian for earning the civility (or lack thereof) it gets.

Axel Bruns said this antagonism towards blogs occurred only in Australia. He said projects elsewhere united blogs and professional journalism in much more productive ways. Bruns said the local situation was a product of “a severe lack of diversity” in the media. Because of this, he said, there was no need to drive exploration of new models. Bahnisch agreed and said that blogging was a risk-taking, conversational form. From the audience, Antony Funnell took passionate exception to this sense of antagonism that Bahnisch believed existed between journalists and bloggers. Funnell said that the anti-blogging opinions of Day and Christian Kerr were “not representative”. He said most journalists understand new media and use bloggers as part of their daily media diet.

To my mind, Funnell’s point is valid. With more than a hint of a sympathetic working journalist’s anger when provoked, he showed up some glaring open wounds between the two disciplines of “journalism” and “blogging”. For all their talk of false dichotomies, none of the panel were able to bridge the gap between the two. The scholar Bruns clearly understands how the models operate but showed no sympathy for those in his audience who are about to be impaled on the pointy end of the media stick. Bahnisch, meanwhile, is the archetypal blogger-netizen who uses his sharp intellect and wit to slam the justifiable flaws of mainstream media without stopping to worry if he is casting the first stone. Somehow of the three, it seems to me that it is Edmunds who comes closest to the honest norm of a working journalist who happens to use the medium of blogging to “write for money”.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Future of Journalism Queensland 3: Paying for journalism

This is the third in a series of posts about last Saturday’s Future of Journalism Queensland summit at QUT, Brisbane. See links to part one and two. The next session was about business models and was entitled “Who is going to pay for journalism?” The session was moderated by Antony Funnell, the host of ABC Radio National’s Media Report, an excellent weekly program that is compulsory listening for anyone with an interest in journalism in Australia and the world beyond.

Funnell moderated a three person panel. They included Dr Jean Burgess, a postdoctorate research fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation where she works on cultural participation and user-led innovation in new media. Also on the panel was Phil McDonald, Queensland managing director of marketing and communication firm George Patterson Y&R. He is also a board director of the company nationally. Completing the panel was Cameron Reilly, founder and CEO of new media company The Podcast Network.

Cameron Reilly began the discussion by describing big media as an anomaly of the 20th century. In the middle of the 19th century there were hundreds of newspapers in the big cities of the world. Then the economics changed when newspapers began subsidising the selling price with advertising. But the era it ushered in has been now been undermined by the Internet. Reilly said the Internet has taken us back to the type of communication that dominated the previous 40,000 years: that of telling stories to each other. The fundamentals of the economy has changed, he said and “there was no putting the genie back in the bottle”. He said there were now 75 million blogs and 100 million videos (a day) on Youtube. Reilly said these diverse platforms were undermining “the controlled oligopoly” of big media.

Funnell asked the panel if the future meant there would be many small-sized business in place of a few large ones. Reilly noted the fact that Crikey had bought up several important political blogs in the previous day or so but would ever only employ a handful of journalists. Given that traditionally news in print form was paid for by classified ads, he asked rhetorically: “Is Seek going to be the new investigative journalism site?”

Phil McDonald took up the conversational cudgels from the adman’s perspective. He said consumers were consuming more news than ever. But how to target them in the new environment is the frustration for advertisers. He said what clients wanted was a return on investment and were prepared to take risks to follow the news online. However the charging of advertising has not kept up with the provision of news. He said producers need to create more, to make money for his clients. But habits have also changed and people now consume news when and where they want it. “A credible source of news is where people start and what advertisers want,” he said.

Jean Burgess spoke next. She said the mass media need to be seen in the context across the creative industries. She said news was only one of the creative industries obsessed with “delivering to the consumer”. Burgess said its “here is the news – you can now comment” is “not respectful” and not how the blogosphere works or how audiences engage with media. She asked whether media organisations were interested in engaging with social media, an area where there was “lots of experimentation”.

Burgess saw the Viacom law suit against Google’s YouTube as a clash of business models. A better way, she thought, than "Viacom's belligerent charge to the courts" might be to get some component of the revenue generated, rather than asking for the content to be taken down. She said the agenda was now being driven by the demands of an engaged audience and people could make a living out of the new media. “Maybe not a river of gold,” she said, “but a trickle of silver.”.

Reilly said his company “breaks even” using a mixture of subscription, advertising and consultancy work. He was unsure where the revenue might be in five years. Advertising was the “easiest guess” but lots of work was required to make it happen. And he warned that it would be a serious problem if he was hit by a major lawsuit. He said he had respect for journalists but it wasn’t what he did. “99 percent of bloggers and podcasters don’t want to make money (and) don’t consider themselves journalists,” he said. “If anyone said I was a journalist, I’d be horrified.”

The panel then took several diverse questions from the floor. Reilly said he got 90 percent of his news from Twitter and believed the 20th century economic model where we “supported fat rich white guys in Mercs and Jags is gone.” But he was very pessimistic about the future for journalists saying there was a “tough decade ahead”. But the writing was on the wall for a long time before the recent Fairfax bloodletting and his question to journalists was “why did you fiddle while Rome burned for 20 years.” Burgess suggested that if the Courier-Mail disappeared “then maybe the ABC would blossom”. McDonald concluded that brands like the Courier-Mail won’t die, “but (they) need to realise impact in different forms”.

Turnbull defeats Nelson to become new Liberal Party leader

Malcolm Turnbull is the new Liberal party leader after this morning’s surprise leadership spill rebounded on Brendan Nelson. Nelson almost salvaged a mostly disastrous ten months at the helm of the Opposition with his audacious move to call the spill last night. It caught the overseas-returning Turnbull on the hop while simultaneously denying Party-pooper Peter Costello the media attention his book launch so richly did not deserve. But the writing seemed on the wall after the ABC’s 7.30 Report revealed Turnbull had the numbers. And so it proved in the party room vote which Turnbull won by 45 votes to 41.

The result almost exactly overturns the margin he was defeated by in November’s leadership election after the Coalition was tossed out of office. It looks like at most just one or two people have changed their vote in the meantime. However crucially, the make-up of the party in the Senate has changed since 1 July with six members retiring and four new incoming members.

The political narrative also changed rapidly last week after it became clear that Peter Costello was merely using the leadership speculation to fuel sales of his newly-published memoirs. Nelson’s supporters immediately rallied around their boss demanding he be given “clear air” to establish his leadership. However with the latest opinion poll still only giving him a 16 percent approval rating, the air remained heavily polluted around the good doctor and the narrative quickly moved on to the expected Turnbull spill.

Although he didn't control them, the sudden turn of events has nicely suited the member for Wentworth. As Turnbull did not call the spill, no-one can now accuse him of putting the knife into Nelson’s back. And he has always been open about his long-term goals. While the margin of victory was narrow, his election is likely to immediately halt Liberal leadership speculation and turn the focus back on the Government.

For Kevin Rudd, Turnbull’s victory is probably the most challenging outcome. Nelson was an embarassingly inept leader who failed to land a heavy blow against the Government. Though a Government minister in the Howard administration, Turnbull is not as tainted as Costello would have been over the tattered economic record Labor inherited. And Turnbull will be likely to commit to a “small target” strategy agreeing with the Government in the main, on the intent of its environmental and social agenda. What Turnbull will do is provide a strong intellectual focus that “Emo Man” Nelson so conspicuously failed to deliver in his tumultuous months at the top.

Despite the departure of Australia's answer to Comical Ali, Labor will still be favourite to win the next federal election in 2010 or earlier. But the possibility of their becoming a one-term Government rose with today’s news. These are tough economic times for any Government, and the tide is turning against Labor in the states. A likely heavy (and thoroughly justified) defeat in NSW in the 12 months leading up to the election would give Turnbull further momentum. On the positive side, the difficult task of a political sell for an emissions trading scheme may now win bi-partisan support. All in all, today’s result is a good one for the health of Australian democracy that sees heavyweights now leading both major parties. Most mercifully of all, the media will finally have to find something else to talk about now that Dr Nelson has been put out of his long, slow and lingering misery.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Future of Journalism Queensland 2: Students and Editors

Yesterday I wrote about the first session in Saturday’s Future of Journalism Queensland conference at QUT in Brisbane. Today’s post will cover off the next two sessions: “The future as we see it” and “adapt or die: the news managers on their survival strategy”. These two sessions took on the views of those diametrically opposite in the local mediascape. The “we” in the title of the first of these two sessions were three third year Griffith University journalism students whereas the news managers of the second session (Hugh Martin, David Fagan, Stuart Watt and Liz Deegan) are the among the most important media players in Australia.

The university student session was chaired by John Taylor who is the presenter of the Queensland version of ABC TV’s Stateline. The three students were from diverse backgrounds. Amy Bradney-George is from Bellingen, in northern NSW. Tran Nguyen was born in Malaysia and moved to Australia with her family when she was one year old. She is fluent in Indonesian and Vietnamese. Denis Semchenko emigrated from Russia when he was 17 and now edits the Griffith student newspaper The Source.

Taylor began by giving all three the floor to discuss their background, their aspirations and concerns, their media habits and their reasons for studying journalism. Amy Bradney-George began by talking about her home town of Bellingen where there was a “strong sense of social conscience”. But, she said, people were cynical about journalism and this was something she wanted to change. Her media diet was rich and varied, listening to ABC Radio National, watching the various TV news and current affairs shows, reading newspapers and online sites. She was a fan of social network sites as “word of mouth” tools to quickly spread information. Bradney-George liked the “personal trust” aspect of radio, the “visual context” of television and the enjoyment of reading of a newspaper with a cup of coffee. However, she said, the Internet had the potential to combine all three media. She concluded by expressing a concern about the concentration of media ownership, “which is why I get news from different places” she said.

Tran Nguyen began her speech by saying she rarely reads a newspaper or watches television. The Internet was her dominant source of news which she liked for its ease of access and the ability to get news when you needed it. “Generation Y loves instant gratification,” she said, “the Internet gives me news now”. Time was the most important thing for her as a busy university student. “TV news times doesn’t suit us,” she said. However, she acknowledged that when she compared news articles in their online form against the same article in the newspaper, they were often shortened. She also said that online doesn't place as much news value on stories as print, but the Internet was convenient, accessible and up-to-date. Nguyen enjoys working with refugee groups and said because she was also studying International Relations she might not necessarily end up in journalism. “I’d like to work as a communications officer for a regional aid program,” she said.

Denis Semshenko said he too got most of his news information online which he supplements with some newspapers. He was a fan of local bloggers such as John Birmingham. Semshenko is a keen musician and a guitarist in a Brisbane band Dream Sequence, and reads a lot of music street press such as Rave and Time Off. He said he goes online “four or five times a day” to check for news and also subscribes to social networks such as Myspace and Facebook. Semshenko said that community newspapers were important in the way that they introduced stories that often made it into metropolitan and national media.

The students’ views and media habits may not have been music to the ears for the next panel which brought in some of the heavy hitters of the Brisbane media scene. Talking about the survival strategies involved in “adapt or die” were moderator Hugh Martin manager of APN online (“the largest media organisation no-one has heard of in Australia” according to Martin), David Fagan, editor of the Courier-Mail, Liz Deegan, editor of the Mail’s weekend stablemate, The Sunday Mail and Stuart Watt, the web development manager at ABC Online News.

Liz Deegan began the discussion. Deegan edits the Brisbane Sunday Mail which attracts a weekly readership of three quarters of a million people. She defined adaptation not as a threat but a challenge and an opportunity. She wanted to see journalists who were creative, and what was needed was “journalists with passion, integrity and hunger for news stories.” Deegan said we now operate in a competitive media landscape. “20 years ago there was nowhere near the same competition in news delivery,” she said. Deegan believes that newspapers needed to “have innovative product, (be) relevant to audiences and offer the best product they can.”

David Fagan spoke next. The Courier-Mail editor is a little-known but extraordinarily influential figure whose paper reaches one in three Queenslanders and he is the person politicians most fear in a one newspaper town. He agreed that adaptability was one of the biggest issues facing journalism. He said there needed to be a continual push for change and journalists should not be content with “ten pars in the paper” but also look to re-purpose the material online or as magazine pieces. “We need to adapt to audience needs,” he said. “the (key) thing is the story”. Fagan used the example of what he called “a terrific story” in today’s paper Qweekend magazine insert. The story “the six lives of Andre Fromm” about Dieter Fromm whose son Andre died. Dieter now regards the six people who inherited his son’s organs as family. This was a story Fagan heard on the radio. He sent a reporter and a video operator to capture for print and the Internet “the power of this guy with a strong story to tell”. That was the approach we need to take, he said.

Morgan asked Fagan about the difference between the Mail’s print and Internet editions and how much of that was explained by editorial influence. Fagan said ten percent of newspaper content ends up online. He said younger people prefer to read the online edition. It was a matter of experimenting he said, trying and failing new things. While many have complained about the dumbed down content online compared to print (an issue shared by Fairfax Media), Fagan said he was “not uncomfortable” with the difference between the newspaper and the website. “There is a lot of depth in there,” he said. “Don’t judge it on the home page”.

Stuart Watt spoke next. Watt was one of the innovators of the ABC News online website in 1996 and has risen through the ranks to manage the news development team. He said the fundamentals of journalism were the same as they always were. “A good story is a good story (and that has) not changed in a hundred years,” he said. He believed it was an exciting time to be involved in media but it was a case of “innovate or die”. However he was grateful that the “resource rich” 75 year old ABC did not have the commercial imperative of his rivals and it allowed them to experiment with new methods and “try and fail” until they find something that works. “If go down enough rabbit holes,” he said, “you eventually come to a parallel universe”.

Morgan concluded by asking the panel what skill sets new journalists needed in the parallel universe. Watt said it was important they were aware of what was going on in the world. There were too many people who had no idea what was going on. “I’ve had people tell me Brazil is a country in Europe”, he said. Spelling was also important. Watt said those who combine news values with web expertise would also have a future. He wanted to see “digital citizens interested in how it all hangs together and exploring different ways of telling a story.” Liz Deegan said she wanted graduates who have “tested themselves” in work experience, have video skills and are very well read.

All of the panel believed their institutions would successfully adapt to the changing times. And if the impressive quality of the young journalism students at the conference is anything to go by, industrial journalism's confidence in the future may be justified. A bullish Fagan concluded “death is something that is going to happen to someone else”.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Future of Journalism Queensland 1: The state of the global news media

The QUT Gardens Theatre was the venue yesterday for an all day summit devoted to a discussion of the Future of Journalism sponsored by the journalist union MEAA and the Walkley Foundation. It follows on from the successful Sydney summit in May and about a hundred journalists, managers, bloggers, educators and students came along to listen to the words of wisdom of many of Brisbane’s key media players. The day was broken up into six sessions that covered the state of global media, media students’ vision of the future, news managers’ survival strategies, future business models, blogging, and techniques and technologies. I will cover off my notes on these sessions in a series of articles and this first post is about the opening session entitled “the state of the global news media”.

The session was a discussion between MEAA federal secretary Chris Warren and media academic, journalist and author Margaret Simons. Warren began by hailing Simons’ 2007 book The Content Makers as “the text that summarises where we at” with the Australian media (an assessment I fully agree with). He then asked her where she thought the local industry was headed. Simons said that the industry had gotten industry into dire straights in the last twenty years and “it would get worse before it got better”. She said new media technologies (Internet, mobile, digital broadband) had put a bomb under the establishment and we had reached the “end of Empire” stage of the two major powers in Australian media: Murdoch and Packer.

But Simons did not necessarily want to put the boot in; she said it was almost a situation of “what did the Roman Empire ever do for us?” Both Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch supported unprofitable outlets but both The Bulletin and the Sunday program were killed off after Packer died and the same may happen to the loss-making The Australian when the “old man” Rupert Murdoch dies. Nevertheless there remains an “embarrassment of riches” available in terms of media content which is being repurposed in different places and different times. The problem is that the business of selling has changed as the classified ads migrate to new digital homes. “It is possible now," said Simons, “to buy a house or a car without buying Michelle Grattan.

Simons said the audience is fragmenting but that represents an opportunity as well as a threat. She believes we need to rethink what quality means and said that interaction with the audience is necessary. Some journalists are struggling with this concept. Mark Day wrote off bloggers this week in The Australian while George Megalogenis told the Byron Bay writers festival he would only allow “expert” opinion in his blog comments. But while some Australian journalists were dismissing the hoi polloi, over in the US Jay Rosen was an “exciting pioneer” with his pro am experiment Assignment Zero and its wisdom of the crowds approach.

Simons also noted how that approach influences newer media where there is “instant redaction” when there is an error. Simons said journalists need to acknowledge when they get something wrong. “It is a very human, but extremely destructive, impulse to back away from error.” But fixing it was “something we are bad at doing at the moment”. Simons also stressed the need for journalistic independence. By this she didn’t necessarily mean an independent voice but the ability to stand up to their editors when asked to provide objectionable reporting. She said those who criticise bloggers for their partisan positions should realise that this is also how the newspaper industry started. It wasn’t until the 19th century and an increasing reliance on advertising revenue that the notion of objectivity took hold.

Warren then moved on to ask Simons for some scenarios of the future for mass media. She said mass media would survive with “bite size” chunks of interactive news. However Simons was doubtful whether there would be enough of a mass to support national news journalism in Australia. She said high quality journalism will migrate to other platforms but won’t appear in the mass media. But she said other avenues were opening up for quality journalists to make a living. Simons said the non-fiction market has thrived in recent years and books such as “Dark Victory” by David Marr and Marion Wilkinson have achieved commercial success. Simons noted also that this type of journalism follows a true “user pays” approach where people who want a product pay full price for it.

Simons went on to discuss the importance of the national broadcaster. She said that if Jay Rosen was Australian, he would probably be working for the ABC. They have 3,000 content makers who are paid by what Rosen called “The People formerly known as the audience” (a slogan that several speakers would return to, as the day progressed). Simons said it would only be a slight step to make that process more direct and she believed ABC is moving towards the model. She said ABC boss Mark Scott is aware of the issues. While not totally in agreement with the way he is running the corporation, she said she was “glad ABC was aware of citizen journalism and what the challenges are.”

Warren asked about her views on how journalists should adapt to the changing landscape. Simons said that an increasing number of journalists were starting their own business. Stephen Mayne was a pioneer with Crikey and since he sold it, it is now making a small profit. Mayne is now involved a new video journalism experiment The Mayne Report. Meanwhile Alan Kohler and Stephen Bartholomeusz quit Fairfax to start their own subscriber-based “Eureka Report”. She said it was important to note that journalism and media were not the same thing and advised those at the start of their career to put together a business plan not necessarily to make huge profit but at least to pay a salary. She said small niches were the way to attract dedicated readership “but the challenge is connecting the niches”. Simons wondered how democracy would function if people only read their own niche.

Warren then expanded the democracy question to ask what role journalism had in the post-nation state era. Simons stated that the invention of the printing press caused democratic forms to change. She said there was 200 hundred years between Gutenberg’s press and the rise of the newspaper. “But only 30 years has passed since the invention of the Internet and we don’t know where it is taking us,” she said. “And democracy is not in great shape now”. But, she said, the growth of literacy and the communication of news in the 16th and 17th century had everything to do with the growth of democracy. What is needed is a return to the “high public purpose of journalism”.

Simons then moved on to the gift economy. She said this was a concept borrowed from anthropology where services are given for intangible rewards. Similar to potlatch rituals, people freely give away their services in return for kudos, pleasure and power. She said most blogs are not written for profit and the best of them, such as Larvatus Prodeo and the (now rebadged) Pollytics have given newspapers such as The Australian a run for its money.

Simons concluded the session by answering questions from the floor. One Courier-Mail journalist asked whether traditional journalism “craft skills” would still be relevant in the future. Simons agreed that the skills of writing things in newsworthy fashion, and extracting information in interviews were difficult to attain. She said that these craft skills were the key difference between journalists and bloggers. But her advice back to the journalist was to find out what your audience needs in terms of journalism and provide it for them.

On other questions Simons said the code of ethics needed to be constantly reviewed and updated, the staged political interview (such as those conducted by Kerry O’Brien on the 7.30 report) were a “tired cat-and-mouse game” and there were also hopeful signs for the industry in the Pay TV and documentary sectors. She said we needed to work out where the mass audience will be in the diversified market when analog TV finally switches off. Simons concluded on a positive note. “There was no evidence of declining appetite for journalism,” she said. “It is the business model that is at risk”.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

National broadcast wars: ABC refuses to provide footage to SBS

Last Monday’s Media Watch reported a stoush between its host station ABC and fellow national broadcaster SBS. Australia’s two public television networks are involved in an ugly squabble over the rights to footage for separate documentaries on John Howard’s time in government to be aired on either channel in the next 12 months. The footage required belongs to ABC who have reneged on an earlier deal to supply SBS in order to protect the ratings of its own product. Given that the taxpayer pays for both channels, the stoush is all the more ludicrous and counter-productive, and the fault is almost entirely that of the ABC.

The SBS project was conceived in 2006 when Sydney documentary filmmakers Nick Torrens and Frank Haines approached the broadcaster to make a make a three part series called “Liberal Rules” on the Liberal Party over the last 30 years. The documentary would be presented by Gary Sturgess, journalist, lawyer and a fellow documentary maker. They then attempted to secure funding and approached ABC in April 2007 to acquire archival material for their show.

Media Watch obtained the email correspondence which showed that ABC offered to provide 60 minutes of footage at a discount price of $160,000. While the generous offer was half of ABC’s normal going rate, Torrens and Haines had not fully secured their funding. They thanked the ABC for the offer and promised to get back to them. Fast forward one year to May 2008 and the SBS team had their funding in place and were ready to activate ABC’s offer. But something had changed in the interim. Haines’s email to order the material encountered only a deafening silence from ABC library sales.

Finally weeks later, they responded. And the response was brief and to the point: “After discussion with our News and Current Affairs division we have decided that we cannot supply footage for your production at this time.” A stunned Haines wrote to ABC Managing Director asking for an explanation on the change of heart. Scott responded sticking to the line that the ABC maintained it had not agreed to licence the footage. The ABC library manager followed up with another email with a softer line that suggested ABC would be prepared to licence the material on the condition that the use of the material “would commence on date not before January 2009”.

As David Tiley points out in his excellent and scathing article on the stoush, the production company had no power over that question, which is the province of the broadcaster. And SBS were unhappy with the embargo, planning to show the series later this year. Torrens and Haines followed up on this point with Media Watch stating reasonably that as the ABC archive is a publicly funded resource it had no justification for placing an embargo on the use of its material by independent documentary producers.

When Media Watch addressed their questions to Scott and the ABC board, they were referred to ABC’s head of national programs, Alan Sunderland. Sunderland began his response by talking about the ABC’s own documentary called The Howard Years which ABC was now scripting and editing. He said the ABC would require exclusive access to the archive and claims no agreement was reached in 2007 with the SBS team. It was his idea to put in place the embargo. He claimed the use of ABC footage by outside parties was always of “secondary importance” and said SBS had its own extensive archive. According to Sunderland, the ABC was under “no moral obligation” to make the material available.

Sunderland’s reply was incorrect on many counts. Firstly he did not accurately state the nature of SBS’s reply to ABC’s offer (though in fairness, Haines email was ambiguous and he should have explicitly agreed on the spot, pending finance). Secondly SBS’s archive is nowhere near as extensive as ABC’s (as Sunderland would well know as an ex-SBS employee) and the broadcaster itself did not exist prior to 1980. Thirdly, it makes no reference to the fact that SBS is also a public broadcaster, whose primary responsibility is also to make programs for the Australian public. Tiley called the response “arrogant horseshit” and said the ABC has a responsibility to make available the heritage of its program making, as part of the Australian cultural fabric.

The SBS filmmakers were equally unimpressed and are now scrambling to find the material they need from the commercial broadcasters (at probably much higher cost). They released a statement saying the ABC had no justification to place the embargo, and turn down commercial opportunity of archive recoupment in the process. “For us, this is a clear and salutary reminder of Australia’s new and commercially competitive public broadcasting environment,” said the filmmakers. “The implications for filmmakers, audiences and taxpayers of these decisions and events are dire and of great importance.”

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Belarus tiptoes towards the West

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko appeared to be making signals to the West when he said yesterday he would not immediately recognise the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The normally fiercely pro-Russian president also said he was in no rush to station weapons on Belarus’s western border in response to the US missile defence system to be based in Poland. Taken together the two statements reveal Lukashenko may be about cool relations with Moscow in order to do a deal with the US and the EU.

The EU is happy to encourage these signs that a tense relationship with the West may be on the mend. EU foreign policy head Javier Solana, noted that Belarus had taken the positive step of releasing a number of political prisoners. Solana talked about the EU “rewarding that behaviour”. Neighbour Poland has been at the forefront of the push for normalisation and wants Europe to remove sanctions it imposed on Belarus after a dubious presidential election in 2006 in which Lukashenko won with 82.6 percent of the vote.

While Lukashenko is showing no signs of loosening his iron-clad grip on Belarus’s polity, there are several indications he is about to come out from Russia’s warm embrace. Previously Lukashenko was at the forefront of calls to reunite Belarus with its large Russian neighbour, but now is backing away from that idea. On Monday he said recent events in the Caucasus meant Belarus’ joining the Russian Federation was unacceptable. “You know that there were such ideas in due time. Today many politicians acknowledge, though not out loud, that I was right,” he said. “This is absolutely not needed, either for Belarus or Russia. Otherwise, Russia will simply lose a reliable ally and a subject of international law.”

Belarus has relied on Russian gas to fuel its economy and annual imports 21 million metric tons of Russian crude. This is almost three times as much as it needs for its domestic economy. The surplus allows Belarus to refine the rest and sell the product at profit to the EU. However relations with Putin's regime have cooled since Russia ended subsidised oil and gas supplies last year. The new price, $100 per thousand cubic meters more than doubled the previous price of $46 and was exacerbated by a separate decision by Russia to impose a customs duty of $180 per metric ton on Russian oil. In response Lukashenko imposed a Belarussian transit fee on Russian oil bound for Europe.

Alexander Lukashenko has run Belarus on Soviet economic lines and was a dogged supporter of Russia, even proposing the two countries unite. He came to power in a landslide 1994 election. He deliberately played up to his pariah role in the west by cultivating relationships with the leaders of Iran and Cuba. Lukashenko is a dogmatic leader who harassed opposition voices and removed an awkward parliament in 1996. He rewrote the constitution four years later to favour himself by allowing presidents to serve three or more terms.

His authoritarian style was noted as far back as 1991 when he supported the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev as a then member of the Belarusian parliament. Since 2006, he has been in talks with Russia to form a “union state” But the happy relationship soured after Moscow demanded that Minsk pay market prices for its energy. The regime is now faced with crippling fuel bills and in need of new friends. Hence Lukashenko’s subtle overtures to the west. The US responded last week by suspending some economic sanctions against Belarusian companies. However other key sanctions remain, including the freezing of bank accounts of the state-controlled oil and chemical company, Belneftekhim. Lukashenko’s latest announcements may prove to be the key to defrosting the lucrative oil account in the west.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

“Bhutto is alive”: Asif Ali Zardari sworn in as new Pakistan president

Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was sworn in as the new president of Pakistan at a ceremony at President House in the capital Islamabad today. Zardari recited the oath of office "I will bear true faith and allegiance to Pakistan” in front of supporters who chanted "Long live Bhutto" and "Bhutto is alive". The ceremony marks the completion of a stunning rise to power for the 53 year old Zardari who was thrust into the spotlight after his wife was assassinated at an election rally in December last year.

But while Zardari is still considered a political novice by some, he did show great nous in the last month as he removed the final obstacles to his ascension to the top job. He firstly oversaw a deal in which former president Pervez Musharraf resigned to avoid impeachment. Then Zardari neatly sidestepped his reluctant coalition partner Nawaz Sharif to convincingly win the presidential vote of the electoral college consisting of two houses of the parliament and four provincial assemblies on the weekend. Zardari’s swearing in now formally completes Pakistan's return to civilian rule nearly nine years after General Musharraf seized power in a bloodless military coup.

Zardari’s two daughters, Bakhtawar and Asifa, and his son, Bilawal were also in attendance at the inauguration ceremony. It was the Bilawal Bhutto Zardari who was anointed his mother’s chosen successor as leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in the emotional aftermath of Bhutto’s assassination. But because of Bilawal’s youth (he turns 20 in a fortnight), he remains a figurehead only and his father was appointed co-chairman of the party. This was a strategic move as Zardari carried a lot of baggage having spent 11 years in prison on various charges including blackmail and corruption, for which he earned the nickname "Mr 10 per cent”.

But none of his chequered history was mentioned today as he feted by the country’s luminaries. Zardari was presented a guard of honour by a contingent of the armed forces and then visited by the Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, as well as members of the federal cabinet, Senate chairman, Chief Justice of Pakistan, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee and chiefs of the three services. Zardari was anxious, however, to appear humble in his new role and ordered government departments not to issue advertisements congratulating him on his election. “We are a poor country and cannot afford such extravagance at the expense of taxpayers’ money,” he said. “The world is watching us and the government is facing many internal and external challenges.”

Chief among those challenges will be his ability to cobble together an effective ruling coalition now that Nawaz Sharif and his PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz) party pulled out of government on 25 August. On Monday, Sharif rebuffed the president-elect’s offer to rejoin the coalition but pledged to play a constructive role in opposition. Sharif had been threatening to pull out of the coalition since May claiming the PPP had not kept its promises to restore judges sacked by Musharraf. Sharif did not contest the presidential election himself, but Zardari outpolled PML-N's candidate, former chief justice Saeed-uz-Zaman Siddiqui, by a margin of three to one.

Another of Zardari’s challenges will be to present a moderate front to the extremism that racks Pakistan’s lawless fringes. While he was being sworn in, news emerged of a US missile attack a day earlier on Pakistani soil. The attack targeted a Taliban stronghold in the tribal province of North Waziristan. The attack backfired as it killed 23 people (mostly women and children) but failed to claim its target, Sirajuddin Haqqani, the son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, whom the US accused of organising raids across the border in Afghanistan.

Haqqani senior had previously had the backing of Pakistani’s powerful spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence so the attack potentially signals a change of policy. Zardari has also been talking up the fight against the Taliban having raised eyebrows last month when he said Pakistan was losing the war. “The issue, which is not just a bad-case scenario as far as Pakistan is concerned or as Afghanistan is concerned but it is going to be spreading further,” he said. “The whole world is going to be affected by it." The world will now be watching Zardari to see what he does about it in his new role.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Unita disputes ruling MPLA landslide victory in Angolan election

The opposition Unita Party has claimed elections were rigged after Angola’s ruling party won a landslide victory claiming 80 per cent of the vote in Friday’s election. The poll was the first in 16 years. The right-wing Unita (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola), which fought a bitter civil war for 27 years, claimed just 10 percent with two-thirds of the vote counted. With final results expected later today, Unita has lodged a complaint with Angola's electoral commission over the running of the vote. "The final result might not fully reflect the will that was expressed by the people of Angola in the ballot," Isaias Samakuva, Unita's leader, said yesterday.

The ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) has claimed victory and called Unita “bad losers”. The MPLA has ruled Angola since independence from Portugal in 1975 and fought a civil war with Unita which was supported by the South African apartheid regime and also covertly by the US. Half a million people died in the 27 year war which ended when Unita’s leader Jonas Savimbi was killed by government soldiers in 2002. Within six weeks of his death, the two sides then agreed on a ceasefire and Unita became the official opposition party.

The 2008 election is the first poll since the failed 1992 poll sponsored by the ill-fated Portuguese sponsored Bicesse Accords. In that election, the MPLA won with 54 percent of the vote to Unita's 34 percent. Like this time, Unita disputed those results and resumed a civil war with immediate success. However, when they threatened to disrupt the supply from the oil-rich province of Cabinda, the Clinton administration withdrew their support in favour of the Luanda government. Unita have spent the last few years attempting to shore up their political support in advance of this year’s promised election.

Now many are wondering whether Unita’s failure will be a trigger for a return to war. The government has denied they have been up to any electoral shenanigans though have admitted the existence of “administrative glitches” in some areas, particularly in the capital, Luanda , home to nearly a quarter of the country's almost 8.3 million registered voters. Unita and three smaller rivals have called for the election to be annulled in the Luanda province. They claim a new poll is necessary because controls over the ballots were inadequate and many people were denied the opportunity to vote,

There are mixed reports from the 1,200 foreign election observers from 17 international organisations in the country. Monitors from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) said the vote had been "transparent and credible" among the eight million voters. However an EU observer who visited several polling stations said the voting in Luanda was a “disaster” caused by poor planning and inadequate infrastructure. Luisa Morgantini, chief of the EU observer mission, said problems included lack of polling officials, ballots and the ink used to mark voters' fingers and prevent multiple voting. "Voting was a disaster in Luanda following woeful organisation," she said. “The situation was better outside the capital, though there also were problems there.”

The vote took two days to complete. Candidates from 10 parties and four coalition groups contested 220 parliamentary seats. If the MPLA gets its expected two-thirds majority, it will be in a position to make sweeping changes to Angola’s constitution. The result will also shore up the position of long-standing President Jose Eduardo dos Santos who is up for re-election next year. Santos’s international position is solid thanks to the country’s rich oil interests. And Dos Santos is perfectly placed to take advantage of the boom. During the Soviet era, he graduated from Baku’s Oil Academy with a degree in Petroleum Engineering after studying six years on scholarship there.

Angola has recently joined OPEC and has replaced Saudi Arabia as China’s leading source of crude oil. But little of the proceeds have trickled down to Angola’s poor and the country's dilapidated infrastructure also affected its ability to hold an election. Millions of Angolans have moved to Luanda in recent years as they are unable to make a living in rural areas and civil war land mines remain an ever present danger. 22-year-old unemployed Pai Bando told AFP he would not vote for Unita, despite its promise of a fairer distribution of wealth, because he feels only the MPLA is strong enough to make changes. But he remained sceptical of the promise of all parties. "They (the elite) get all the money from the oil and the diamonds, they get everything and we get nothing," he said.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Africa takes to citizen journalism

A conference of African journalists commencing tomorrow in South Africa will look at the emerging trend of citizen journalism. Held at Grahamstown’s Rhodes University in Eastern Cape Province each year, this event is the 12th Highway Africa Conference. 700 Delegates (including journalists, media educators, bloggers, publishers and students) from 40 African countries will take part in three days of talks, workshops and skills training and will hear a keynote address from technology writer and author of “We the Media”, Dan Gillmor.

The conference is an exciting event for the world’s least Internet connected continent. The theme “Citizen Journalism, Journalism for Citizens” will focus on how media professionals and citizens can improve their contributions and work better together. According to Rhodes University’s school of journalism head Guy Berger the conference will examine the extent African journalists contribute to democracy. “Much media content around Africa calls itself journalism, but is really a far cry from promoting citizens' rights,” he said. “It shamelessly promotes the rights of political rulers at the expense of broader human rights.”

Berger’s lament is not unique to Africa and is one of the common drivers for citizen journalism across the world. Queensland academics Terry Flew and Jason Wilson examine this and some of the other issues around citizen journalism in their paper “Journalism as Social Networking: The Australian youdecide project and the 2007 federal election” (pdf) which has been submitted to the journal Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism” for peer review.

The paper draws on the authors’ experience in the youdecide2007 project which acted as an online news and opinion site in the lead-up to last year’s federal Australian election. The site was founded with the aid of a Queensland University of Technology (QUT) research grant to invigorate public debate about Australian politics in a digital arena and worked with industry partners such as the public broadcaster SBS (who provided legal services for a site-prepared citizen journalism manual), as well as IT company Cisco, online publishers The National Forum (publishers of On Line Opinion) and The Brisbane Institute public affairs think-tank.

The book of Highway Africa’s keynote speaker, Dan Gillmor was also quoted by the Queensland authors. In “We The Media”, Gillmor pointed out the difference between big media journalism and citizen journalism as that of the evolution from “the news as a lecture” to “journalism as a conversation”. And when that happens, he said, the lines between producers and consumers will blur and the communications networks would “become a medium for everyone’s voice”.

Such was the aim of the youdecide site which deliberately set out to provide hyperlocal “bottom up” content that would act as a counterpoint to the “presidential narratives” of news-lecturing big media. But the experiences of Wilson, Flew and others at youdecide showed that new hybrid forms of media still require a significant amount of professional mediation. For starters, they needed to be technically proficient. The site managers (“produsers”) tailored an open-source content management system called Joomla! to allow the submission of multimedia content through the public areas of the site as well as editorial work in the “back end”. They also ran a weekly television show each Friday on Brisbane community television which attracted a decent audience of 12,000 viewers, about half that of the ABC’s Stateline show which appears in a similar timeslot.

Site staff also generated a significant amount of “seed content” for the site as well as editing user content for legal and quality concerns. In this they perform a similar gatekeeping function to the Korean Ohmynews! which is perhaps the most successful international template for citizen journalism. The youdecide experience was that the “pro” content was crucial in attracting visitors to the site and was generally the most-read stories (though intriguing the “am” content generated more comments!). The site’s one “gotcha” story was a staff story: the so-called “Crategate” affair when Jason Wilson’s interview of a Liberal MP was quoted in parliament by then-Opposition leader Kevin Rudd.

Another crucial learning experience from youdecide was the value of networking. In order to get attention for the site, staff members needed to draw on their connections and make alliances with the mainstream journalists. For all its faults, big media is still the best way to get in contact with a mass audience and can help citizen journalism sites thrive if site managers can cultivate relationships with professional journalists and political operatives. Content can also be networked across platforms and the Briz31 output was repurposed on Youtube.

Staff members also provided mentoring services for their amateur content providers. They provided user training in legal and licencing issues, how to post content (and make it compelling), how to register or comment, or how to use linked off-site technologies like digital editing technologies or YouTube. They provided site specific information and also mediation services to stop flame wars, respond to objections and ban repeat offender users.

Flew and Wilson’s key conclusions were fourfold. Firstly, citizen journalism remains at the margins of news production but the production values and multi-skilling at such sites as youdecide are moving to the centre. Secondly the relationship between mainstream media and independent sites is becoming increasingly inter-connected (“porous and permeable” as the authors put it). Thirdly all citizen journalism endeavours should be seen as works in progress and should seek out new areas to engage. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, networked journalism has significant repercussions to the future of journalism and will contribute, as those at Fairfax known only too well, to a further decline in the traditional newsroom environment. “Learning from citizen journalism initiatives,” conclude the authors, “will be an important part of what will define journalism as a professional practice in the 21st century.”