Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Countdown to Beijing

Posted in International Development by Adam Westbrook on August 5, 2008

So it’s less than three days until the Olympics launch in Beijing.

And with little sports gossip, journalists are asking whether the Chinese government has lived up to its promises on human rights.

And of course the evidence widely suggests they haven’t.

Now if there was any justice in the world, human rights would matter more than money: and the IOC would swiftly pull the plug on the whole games.

What’s more important? Athletics or human rights?

But of course the games will go ahead, protests will be silenced, and the world will again will stand aside in the face of massive injustice.

If you don’t want to watch that happen, I recommend watching something else instead: perhaps this excellent report from Sky News producer Holly Williams and the BBC’s most recent Panorama programme.

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“Why don’t we promote the positive?”

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, International Development by Adam Westbrook on May 6, 2007

Here’s a really interesting statistic, you probably didn’t know: 60% of all the people who access the BBC News Africa page via their mobile phones…do so from Nigeria.

Frontline logoIt’s just one of a whole host of interesting points to come out of a debate on how the media cover Africa at London’s Frontline Club this week.

And the big question that came out of it was: “why don’t we promote the positive?

Here’s another fact that proves the point: Zimbabwe has the continent’s worst economy. Inflation was at 1600% last time we all checked. And it get’s argubly the most coverage in the western media, alongside the conflicts in Somalia and Sudan.

And the country with the continent’s best economy? Angola – it’s growing massively. But when was the last time you saw an article on Angola in the western media? Well I’ll help you out a bit: June 16th 2006 was last time a specific article was published in the New York Times.  When was the last time you saw it on a TV news bulletin?

The debate was handed to an audience of journalists working from Africa and they raised some interesting points – here’s a summary:

  • Western media has a “soft touch” with Africa, born out of colonial guilt.
  • Most African newspapers are now online, so there’s no excuse for not knowing what’s going on.
  • Is there an Africa fatigue?
  • Western editors follow the news agenda like a flock of sheep – courageous editors and reporters are needed to break away and cover the uncovered.
  • We are failing because we’re not making African stories interesting to western audiences.
  • Is it time to help normal people in Africa tell their own stories?
  • And the most worrying point: “Nobody cares – editors don’t care.”

And the one thing I’d add to that myself is money. A problem in the eyes of coin counting editors is that it just costs too much to report on Africa. Maybe the answer might come from enterprising young multiskilled journalists going out with cheap kit and reporting it at a lower price? Who knows.
So is all news out of Africa bad news? For the most part yes – but then most news out of anywhere tends to be bad news. I definitely agree with the point that we’re not making it interesting enough and we’re not connecting stories from Africa to our own lives.

And with hundreds of western corporations investing in Africa, we are most definitely having an impact on the shaping of the continent. And not always for good.

There are many journalists and bloggers freelancing in Africa at the moment – I’d be interested to see what they think…

A sad ending to one of the internet’s weirdest stories

Posted in News and that by Adam Westbrook on May 3, 2007

It was one of the world wide web’s first true love stories. A love between the public and a story. The love between one man – and his goat.

a goatYes, in what I once described as a reason never to get rid of news editors ever, way back in September, the story of a Sudanese man marrying a goat after being caught doing a little more than milking it, became a big internet hit.

Sudanese man ‘forced to marry’ goat was published on BBC News Online well over a year ago. And naturally it became a regular feature on the site’s “most read” and “most emailed” section – an argument, in my eyes, that people shouldn’t really be allowed to decide the news.

And today, rather sadly, the news broke that the newly married goat has died, apparently after choking on a plastic bag.

In recent weeks the original story had shot back onto the “most read” section in what I thought was maybe a spamming website trying to piss the beeb off. But apparently not – it’s genuinely been a popular story. What impression people take away of Sudan, God only knows.

But suitably, to end this bizarre tale, todays news has held steady on the “most read” and “most emailed” chart. I think it will be there for a long time come.

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Keep it simple!

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on February 11, 2007

Training to be a broadcast journalist is a bit like being taught a new language. When it comes to writing, you have to ignore all those rules you learned at school and university and the result is something between C++ and poetry.

One of the golden rules hammered into us is to keep things simple. And keep. Your sentences. Short.  Listeners and viewers can only take in a news report once. Even in the impending “on-demand” world, they’ll only want to take it in once.

So if you turn on the TV and radio you usually hear short sharp conversational sentences with all the fluff removed.

Usually.

Admittedly, Channel 4 News tries to be different. It aims to be a bit more creative, but from what I gathered from chief writer Felicity Spector when she came into City a few weeks ago, it still has to be concise.

So, what on earth is this all about?

It’s a report on the Chinese president’s visit to Africa this week, by the usually excellent Faisal Islam: ex City student and Channel 4 News‘ business correspondent. It’s an interesting piece, but check out Faisal’s first line (watch it here):

“The Chinese presidents twelve day tour takes in eight nations including Sudan the most controversial of the host countries where Chinas unconditional aid policy has angered western governments many of whom say Beijing should use its economic weight to end hostilities in Darfur.”

Say what?

It’s 43 words long. That’s nearly twice the recommended length of any sentence for broadcast.  It could be broken down into no less than four separate sentences:

“It’s a breakneck tour for China’s president: eight countries in a dozen days.

But Hu Jintao’s been criticised for visiting Sudan.

Western leaders want Beijing to use its economic muscle to end violence in Darfur.

Instead in its eagerness for ties with Africa China’s giving aid freely.”

Admittedly that’s not great either. But I think it’s easier to understand, and a bit more conversational.

But it goes to show that even with the best journos working for the best stations, the basic rules sometimes still get broken.

A good start for Ban Ki-Moon

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on January 27, 2007

Three weeks in and the new Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki-Moon’s begun his first foreign tour. And he’s chosen Africa as his first stop.

Ban Ki-MoonToday he’s been in Kinshasa, the capital of a country which let’s just say had an eventful 2006. After months of wrangling, violence and uncertainty, elections were held in the D.R. Congo; the country can now justify the “democratic” part of its name.

Incombent Joseph Kabila won convincly with his rival Jean-Pierre Bemba joining the opposition…the country now seems on a more stable tack.

Addressing the Congolese national assembly today, Ban Ki-Moon hailed last years elections as a sign of hope for the country and urged law makers to start a “good governance pact” to see it continue.

After this, the UN Sec-Gen’s heading to the African Union summit in Ethiopia and meeting the not-so-applauded Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir.

A good sign

To visit these countries first is a promising sign. It shows that Ban Ki-Moon’s serious about following his predecessor Kofi Annan’s commitment to peace on the African continent.

It would be easy for the South Korean to put more emphasis on problems closer to home, like the North Korean nuclear missile issue, but he’s made it clear that issue won’t take the spotlight off Africa.

And with Darfur still rumbling on, often without notice, Ban’s come at the right time.

Kofi AnnanBut we can’t get our hopes up too much. Africa was Kofi Annan’s mission too, taking his post in the raw years after the Rwandan genocide. And while victories for peace and progression have come in some places, like Liberia, Sierra Leone and D.R. Congo, Somalia only got worse and now Sudan’s in turmoil.

With so many concerted efforts gaining pace elsewhere to erradicate malaria and tackle HIV, Ban Ki-Moon needs to show he’s not all talk but a leader who can tie these threads together and really make change happen.
He’s got 10 years, starting from now.

No news at Christmas?

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on December 26, 2006

Apparently it’s hard work putting together a news programme over Christmas. The misery of working Christmas Eve/Day and perhaps sipping a bit too much sherry aside, the problem facing journos over the festive period seems to be the lack of news.

“It can be quite tricky putting together a news programme on Christmas Eve… when there’s no news” writes Channel 4 News’ Emily Wilson on Christmas Eve, “surely in the last 24 hours, something other than Mark Ramprakash winning Strictly Come Dancing merits some television coverage.”

But this to me seems extraordinary. No news? If any editor tried looking outside the UK they’d see one of the most important stories of this and the coming year playing out in front of their eyes.

I’ve been writing quite a bit over the past few months about the burgeoning conflict in Somalia.  In August the United Islamic Courts, a fundamentalist Islam group, took control of Mogadishu, ending over a decade of warlord induced chaos. The legitimate government holed up in Baidoa protested, but there were initial talks and a prospect of peace.

But then the two neighbouring countries, Ethiopia and Eritrea got involved. Ethiopia’s a big supporter of the interim government, as its essentially Christian. Muslim Eritrea meanwhile’s behind the UIC.

We’ve all known since September that Ethiopia’s had troops massing inside the country. But on Christmas Eve they finally admitted the fact, and launched several military attacks against the Islamists. As it stands now, the UIC are in a retreat, and Ethiopian troops are about 70 km from the capital.

Why is this important? First off, under the UIC, Somalia became a worry to the west especially as an Al-Qaeda training ground. Whether this is true or not we don’t know. Secondly the real danger emerging is of a proxy war between Ethiopia and Eritrea fought in Somalia – something that could have tragic consequences for ordinary Somalians. This is afterall a country that hasn’t seen stability since 1991.

And that’s before you consider Somalia’s proximity to other hot spots, notably the DR Congo and Sudan.

So a massive conflict on the brink. I think we’ll here a lot more about Somalia next year.

So far, Al-Jazeera English is the only network leading with that story. At the same time I know african conflict isn’t really in the remit christmas domestic bulletins in the UK . But if journalists are so desperate for news, isn’t a burgeoning conflict with immense humanitarian consequences more significant than an indepth report on Leona’s X-factor win?

And as I write, there are devastating floods in Indonesia, four hundred dead in a pipeline explosion in Lagos…oh and a 1 metre tidal wave heading for Taiwan and the Phillipines (2 years to the day after “The Tsunami”.)

No news at Christmas? Yeah right.  

Darfur Diaries

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on November 14, 2006

For months many bloggers – myself included – have been banging on about how terrible the Darfur crisis is, and how poorly the international media are covering it. But we’ve all been left in the dust by Aisha Bain, Jen Marlowe and Adam Shapiro, who’ve all gone out and done something about it.

Two years ago, they went to Sudan and Chad to make a film:

“After monitoring the worsening political and humanitarian crisis for months and recognizing that the mainstream media offered marginal and inadequate coverage, the team set out with the goal of providing a platform for the people of Darfur (both those displaced inside Darfur and those living in refugee camps in Chad) to speak for themselves about their experiences, their fears, and their hopes for the future.” Darfur Diaries

It’s now available to buy and there’s a preview on their website. I haven’t got a chance to see it yet so I can’t offer a review, but I think it’s a nobel project.

And if you’re in the mood, check out this week’s From Our Own Correspondent on BBC Online. As well as a piece from Jonah Fisher on the difficulties of reporting from Darfur, there’s also a moving piece by Matthew Price on last week’s events in Beit Hanoun. Price is, in my opinion, one of the best broadcast journalists there is.

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Damned by debt relief

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on November 5, 2006

This week I came across a charity called WORLDwrite who, among other things, recruit volunteers to make films as a way of fostering global understanding.

They’re touring UK universities to promote a new 28 minute documentary called Damned by Debt Relief which puts a compelling case that the G8/Live8 extravaganca of 2005 didn’t do all it promised.

The documentary was shot in Ghana by a group of WORLDwrite volunteers; Ghana was one of the so-called “HIPC” (Highly Indebted Poor Countries) that had it’s debt cancelled as a result of Gleneagles and “I hate Mondays”. What we weren’t told was all the strings that came attached, that some say, has made the situation worse.

It would appear that the idea of helping poor countries to help themselves has been forgotten and western governments still insist on telling poor countries how they should spend their money.

After living in Ghana for a while in 2003, I’m unabashedly in love with the country; I left feeling that although there was great poverty in places, it is still a modernising country, stable, peaceful, with a bourgeoning middle class and ambitious young people, like the audacious and witty E K Bensah.

Obviously there were some things I missed – see this NYTimes article on child labour in Krete Karachi (on the northern shores of Lake Volta) where I’ve been, but didn’t notice well enough.

Next March is Ghana’s 50th Anniversary of Independence. It was the first country in Africa to gain independence from Britain, so I reckon it’s a big deal. Ideally I’m hoping to go back briefly next year (money permitting), possibly with a camera in hand to see how Ghana stands on the brink of fifty.

And in contrast to all the negative, patronising publicity HIPCountries get too often, Ghana was recently surveyed as the 10th happiest country in the world – above both the UK and the US. So something’s going right!

I’m going along to the next WORLDwrite meeting in a couple of weeks to find out more – I’ll fill you in. In the meantime, watch a shortened version of their Damned by Debt Relief video – it’s a very interesting 3 minutes 30.

Pronk stays!

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on October 28, 2006

Brief bit of good news off the back of my previous post. Jan Pronk, the UN’s representative in Sudan has been allowed to stay in Sudan…at least for a little while longer.

He flew back to New York at the start of the week and emerged, according to reports, with Kofi Annan’s full support.

The Sudanese have said they still want him out (as a result of his excellent blog) but have given him until the end of the year to leave, on the understanding his deputy does most of the work.

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A blog worth writing

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on October 23, 2006

Jan Pronk - screenshot

It’s been known for blogs to get you into trouble. There was that office worker who bitched about her colleagues online, all very funny and all, until of course, her boss found out.  And then that air hostess who posted saucy photos of herself aboard planes, and lost her job.

This time it’s happened to Jan Pronk, the UN envoy in Sudan. On his blog, he’s been writing exceptionally detailed accounts of the work of the peacekeeping mission, and the frustrations of trying to get rebel groups and government officials round a table.

In a mass meeting with them [rebel groups]- I counted about three hundred military commanders and political officials – they promised not to attack the Sudanese Armed Forces. They declared that they would defend themselves, if attacked, but promised to stop attacking. I demanded more: stop considering AMIS, the African Union Peace Keeping Force, as you enemy. Guarantee that bandits and rogue commanders no longer harass aid workers and steal their vehicles.

Last week he was frank about the state of the Sudanese army:

The morale in the Government army in North Darfur has gone down. Some generals have been sacked; soldiers have refused to fight. The Government has responded by directing more troops and equipment from elsewhere to the region and by mobilizing Arab militia.

This honesty, it seems, has backfired. He’s been ordered to leave by the Sudanese authorities, and by all accounts will fly out today.

It’s a serious set back to the peacekeeping mission which seems (if Pronk’s accounts are accurate) to be making slow but steady progress in the right direction. Apparently, his blog‘s unpopular with UN officials, who’ve wanted him to stop writing for a long time.

But I hope he doesn’t. What he’s produced is the most detailed eye witness account of poorly covered negotiations that exists. If it suceeds, the deal could become a blueprint for other nations, and writings like Jan Pronk’s will be vital to understanding it. 

It’s not the fault of Pronk or his blog that this has happened. It’s yet more evidence of the Sudanese military’s power within the country and their willingness to silence opposition.

And meanwhile, reporters still in the country bring back more grim news.

More biased coverage

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on October 12, 2006

From AFP (French Press Agency):

200 leading journalists gathered in a recent conference in Johannesburg, and agreed that western media do not grant Africa fair coverage, failing to report positive economic and democratic news. “Every time a country like South Africa is reported internationally, we are reminded about escalating crime and diseases such as HIV and AIDS,” said Tim Modise, a presenter at Johannesburg-based South African 702 Talk Radio.

A confirmation of the fact that the coverage of African stories needs to be enhanced, can be seen in the recent decision of major international media organizations to have a more significant presence in the country.  Zafar Siddiqi, chairman of CNBC Africa, an affiliate of the US NBC, said he is planning two new offices in South Africa, and others across the country. Al Jazeera announced the same intention, and offices will be opened in Abidjan, Cairo, Harare, Johannesburg and Nairobi.

 

More proof of what I’ve been saying for ages. But it’s a problem that we’re not seeing any attempts to correct bar, perhaps, this conference earlier in the year.

In April I wrote about a Commonwealth Broadcasting Association survey into whether television was reflecting the real world and my conclusion was something along the lines of:

News producer need to be more creative in the stories they find, reporting the good and the bad, in new and original ways that are more reflective of the continent, as well as the rest of the developing world.

And producers from other genres must broaden their horizons. The survey has found that audiences do want to see more from the outside world, but they’re tired of the same repetitive formats.

Good to see Al-Jazeera will be boosting it’s Africa coverage when it finally launches later this year.

The solution isn’t simple, but I’d be really interested in what bloggers in Africa think…do you think British/American/European media outlets reflect your world accurately? Make some noise!

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Sudan: a “cruel hoax”?

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on October 7, 2006

Excellent opinion piece in yesterday’s Guardian. Jonathan Steele, still reporting from Sudan, making a sad point about the British and American’s seemingly positive response to the Darfur crisis:

A cruel hoax is being perpetrated on the desperate people of Darfur. With their constant demands for UN troops to go to Sudan’s western region as the only way to protect civilians, George Bush and Tony Blair are raising hopes in a grossly irresponsible way.

It is not just that the Khartoum government rejects the idea of UN troops. More important, Bush and Blair know that, even if Khartoum were to back down, they will not be sending US or British troops to replace the African Union (AU) force. Nor will other European governments.

Why does this matter? Because hundreds of thousands of displaced villagers who sit in miserable camps across Darfur are under the impression that European soldiers will soon be riding over the hill to save them.

All the rhetoric, all the promises then, mean nothing. For some reason I’m surprised, but I know I shouldn’t be.

Click here to read Jonathan Steele’s piece on commentisfree

Sudanwatch and the Hell On Earth blog have also picked up on it