Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Dispatches: Burma’s Secret War

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on October 4, 2006

Channel 4 logoAn excellent Dispatches hit our screens on Monday night: a thorough piece of journalism on a story that is criminally under-covered, plus brilliant story telling, which I reckon, shows video journalism at its best.

Dispatches: Burma’s Secret War (Channel 4, 8pm) took us into a country that’s literally cut off from the outside world. Few tourists go there and the draconian military dictatorship have banned foreign journalists.

Evan Williams is one of those (well, can you call yourself a journalist until you’ve at least been banned from somewhere) – but he hasn’t given up, and entered the country undercover in order to get the story.

Evan WilliamsWhich is just as well really; it wouldn’t have been half as rivetting if he hadn’t gone back.

A sudden call from the Free Burma Rangers last Christmas began for Williams a month long trek through the Burmese jungle. He followed the rangers (a Christian group providing medical aid to villagers) as they trekked to burnt out villages while similtaneously avoiding being captured by the Burmese army. The rangers insisted he come alone so he had to film the whole experience himself.

According to this week’s Broadcast magazine, he took just 14 batteries and 40 tapes for the whole month. He used a Sony A1 HDV camera operating it himself.

And yes, the camerawork was shaky and the light not always great and the sound not perfect, but this was first hand storytelling, and it was gripping.

Williams didn’t try to hide anything either. We were taken to a medical tent where a landmine victim’s shattered shinbone stuck in the air as he lay on the bed in agony; the rotting corpse of a murdered villager was another grim but necessary sequence. Audiences eating their dinner would have been put off their food – I hope they were.

The programme, made by Hardcash Productions exposed dealings between the British government and Burmese junta, but most of all it was the story of the silent agony of millions of Burmese people.

But will anything come of it? Authored docs like this are the best for keeping an audience enthralled for 60 minutes, but as soon as the credits roll, the attention is soon diverted. And until we solve that problem programmes like this will remain as silent and unacknowledged as the suffering of the Burmese people.

7 Responses

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  1. Black River Eagle said, on October 6, 2006 at 12:22 pm

    Hi Adam,

    I find the investigative journalism reports by the U.K.’s Channel 4 News (is this the same as ITN?) to be quite good. Is there any streaming video available online about this Dispatches program on Burma? Why doesn’t Channel 4 news have wider international distribution via cable or satellite? The program is not available here in Germany.

    Now that I have read here today that you are a “budding video journalist/producer” student at London’s City University I definately will have to stop by more often. Don’t believe all that stuff about being in the middle of a digital media revolution. I and others from the “old school” of the 1970’s have waited more than 30 years for the industry to get this far. That’s kinda slow for a revolution if you ask me.

  2. David Heathfield said, on October 6, 2006 at 1:56 pm

    The dispatches on Burma was indeed excellent and I think only topped this week by BBC 2’s ‘Tea Boy of Gaza’ for fantastic video documentary.

    I think what Adam writes about is deinitely a trend on the BJTC courses at the moment. Over here at Westminster University the online section of our course has been really beefed up and we can’t go a day without being reminded how the convergence of podcasting, videojournalism and blogging is going to radically change the industry in the near future. Even if that isn’t the way things are going the emergence of all of us journalism students into the industry with these kind of ideas is surely going to push things that way.

  3. adamwestbrook said, on October 7, 2006 at 12:00 pm

    Hi Black River Eagle – yup Channel 4 News is made by ITN (who also do ITV’s news and a national radio service) but its seen as more in competition with BBC’s Newsnight. Unfortunately I don’t think they’ve made Dispatches available online – mores the pity.

    Please do stop by more often! We’re all being told we’re in the middle of a revolution, but I think maybe you’re right. David Dunkley Gyimah a VJ pioneer posted a reply here saying they thought the revolution was happening 12 years ago! Maybe the birth of broadband television will see it through this time..?

  4. adamwestbrook said, on October 7, 2006 at 12:03 pm

    Hi David – you’re right it looks like online journalisms becoming more important on courses. According to Chris Doidge at Cardiff uni the BJ course there has a strong web element too…City though hasn’t caught up yet, and I think I’m the only blogger on my course…!

    But yeah hopefully all us grads will keep the revolution going😉

  5. Media Educator said, on October 15, 2006 at 3:45 pm

    That’s right Adam. It is the function of students to CHANGE journalism. Not just to fill some low paid gap in some existing old tech media operation for the benefit of some employer somewhere. That’s a dead end anyway. You might get a job at some low-piad entry level – but are you trained in anyway, or have the contacts and thinking, to move on and not just be fodder and end up as a Cool Edit Pro jockey somewhere, doing self-op presentation and waiting to be replaced by a podcast from the local newspaper group, or a fully automated Runescape-type presentation system.

    At Westminster they are edging towards a fully integrated journalism training. The colleges themselves have literal investment in filling up courses defined by old-fashioned production platforms such as ‘radio journalism’ and ‘newspaper journalism’. But last year at Westminster one of their ‘print’ stduents went straight on to a job at the BBC as a video news producer because she had none of the old-style radio production baggage…

    Also at Westminster the whole second half of the course is based around running live output, daily and for months. At the old style places they have these ‘news days’ where you pretend to do it… its not so good. At Westminster the TV and broadcast course are merged (bu-media – it became stanbdard in the BBC 10 years ago, but the colleges are still having turf wars between their television and radio departments. Some colleges do courses where you have to choose between either TV or radio – riddiculous. They onlt dothat because it (used to be) more expensive to but a student through a TV training course. They go on about the ‘deep craft skill’ of radio or TV. But that’s mainly self-serving BS.

    In the states – where the journalism colleges are much better – the best college really is Poynter. They are now 100 percent convergence journalism. Columbia school still defines journalism by production platform, but it is being painted by Poynter as a dinosaur…

    The good thing about City is their reputation, which means they’ve heard of you, especially the older generation. And the Old School Tie works wonders in Britain. Its just sad but true that just having been to City opens doors, and City itself goes on and on about that. It is like having been to Eaton or something. Westminster trys to counter attack by winning the official awards, and that helps a bit. Westminster’s known though because the alumni get jobs and they are especially well in at Sky and the BBC. They were the only college selected by the BBC to assist in setting up their online and radio training as part of the new college of journalism.

    Good to have you blogging. I spoke with people at the BBC College of Journalism and at Guardian Unlimited and they said they wouldn’t consider offering a job to a non-blogger this year.

  6. Connie Heginbotham said, on February 9, 2007 at 6:44 pm

    Does evan williams have a blog

  7. adamwestbrook said, on February 10, 2007 at 4:22 pm

    I don’t think he has. If anyone knows differently then please let me know!


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