Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Frustration and inspiration

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on November 8, 2006

…all in one day.

Today I’ve been in radio reporter mode, my task: to report for a local station based in North London called EC1 FM.

As part of our training we spend one day newsgathering, and then tomorrow we produce bulletins with our material.

It didn’t look promising as we all rolled in, bleary-eyed, at 9am.  There seemed to be a distinct lack of news in the Islington area: the local rag was already a week old, and council websites were fruitless. But we did manage to scrape together about 20 ideas between us, which ranged from a new CCTV initiative in the area, to a local bikshed being given an award (oh yes.)

Normally days like this are one of complete frustration over stories, rather than anything else. Your best idea falls through when the interviewee pulls out. Or worse still, it turns out not to be a story at all. Not today. This time, I somehow managed to grab 3 different stories: a hard news story about asylum seekers living rough on London’s streets, an interview with a local world record holder and an off diary idea about the lack of poppies on sale ahead of armistace day.

But then the frustrations began.

I recorded some vox pops with students about whether they’d been able to get hold of poppies. Great stuff, but the battery on my Minidisc recorder died halfway through.

Then I went to Highbury, North London, and got a good interview with the record holder (she irons clothes under water). Then to Shoreditch to Amnesty International HQ to record an interesting asylum seeker interview.

I’m a happy man, but when I get back to Uni, I discover the MD has mysteriously erased my interviews. Aaargh!

It’s the worst feeling ever, but at least it’s happened now rather than when I’m getting paid. Definitely going to be more careful from now on.

So I ended the day feeling immensely frustrated. After work, we headed for a talk by some of the team behind Channel 4’s excellent Unreported World. The reporter of last Friday’s programme about gang warfare in Guatemala is Ramita Navai, an ex-City student, who amazingly only graduated from here 3 years ago. Alongside her was David Lloyd, renowned producer, behind Dispatches and Unreported World on Channel 4.

It was a totally inspiring two hours – Unreported World is a brilliant, unique piece of journalism, that goes to the places we never hear about. And Ramita’s story of how she got to where she is, gave us all the real get-up-and-go to do great stuff.  It takes time, perseverance and, it would seem, luck to make it far in television journalism, but I felt far more motivated than ever before.

If you’re in the UK, watch the programme: Friday’s 19:30 on Channel 4. If not, you can listen to the programme in radio, by clicking here.

So a bit of a mix today, but far better than any day at the office!

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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.