Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

The people who refuse to get screwed by the system

Posted in International Development by Adam Westbrook on September 14, 2008

For anyone who doesn’t know I recently moved ‘up north’ to start a new job, working in Hull. So far, so good, and already it’s proving eventful and interesting. Two experiences in the last week have got me thinking about the state of modern Britain, and what appears to be our rapidly deminishing rights and freedoms.

In the dog house

On Monday, I was sent a report from a freelance court reporter in Hull about a case which had just been thrown out of the courts. 57 year old John Hirst, from Hull, an ex-prisoner,  prison reform lawyer – and well known blogger – had been hauled before the judges after his dog was accused of biting a park warden.

When John appeared in court, the prosecution were able to offer no evidence and the judge duly threw out the case.

But not before John had been arrested and questioned. And not before it cost the taxpayer a rather large amount of money (John told me he reckons it’s about £20,000).

Speaking to John on the phone he was “livid” about what had happened and how the case had been allowed to have gotten so far. If it had gone as far as a trial, then it would have cost even more. But there are some other things that worry me about the story.

First up is the supposedly heavy handed response from the authorities. John told me six police officers came to his house after the complaint was made, handcuffed him and took him to a police station. His dog, Rocky, was separated from him and kept at the police station. What defence does any citizen have when this kind of thing happens?

Luckily the justice system came through, but there’s another worry too.

John called me again later in the week, concerned there had been no response from the authorities. True, Hull City Council had refused to comment, saying the police led the prosecution. So I want to find out what the police files on this say, but doing a bit of reading up this weekend it’s not looking promising.

Heather Brooke, the well known journalist and freedom of information campaigner, says Britain’s supposedly “open” legal system is the opposite. Trying to get access to what should be public files is near impossible. Still I won’t let that stop me trying. Let’s see if the FOI Act can uncover more…

Your invite’s in the post

Less than 24 hours later I found myself in Hedon, a small village outside Hull. Today though it was hosting some big(ish) political names. Namely the Environment Secretary Hillary Benn, and local MPs Graham Stuart and David Davis.

Mr Benn had been invited up to talk flooding, and specifically why the EA wants to flood acres of farmland instead of paying for flood defences. We, the assembled media, were there too, hoping to get a soundbite off the Minister.

Waiting outside Hedon’s small town hall, I was approached by a man called Simon Taylor. He lives on a small piece of reclaimed land called Sunk Island. He, along with 800 others were probably going to loose their homes to the Humber River within the next 20 years. That almost certainty meant they couldn’t sell their homes, and are going to have to stay to watch it happen.

A charming and polite man, tall with a bristly moustache, Simon was angry because he was standing outside the meeting, and not in it. The hour long coflab, involved the three politicians, local councillors and a select group of farmers. But the ordinary people hadn’t been invited along. “I’m going to lose my home, and I haven’t got a voice,” he told me.

I chatted to Simon and interviewed him about his worries. But later on he did something which few people would bother to do, or be brave enough to do.

Sure enough, Hillary Benn emerged to give a brief statement to the press before speeding off to his next gig. That left Stuart and Davis left to show off about how they’d got a government bigwig to come all the way up to Hull. But their words were interrupted when to my left, a voice raised above theirs and said “excuse me, why wasn’t anyone invited. We’re going to lose our homes – I think we would have liked to have had a word with the minister.” Like the fiercest of political reporters Simon pressed the question and wouldn’t let it go.

Flustered, Graham Stuart admitted it was a problem of space rather than anything else, and promised a public meeting was going to be held next month. But will Hillary Benn be there? Who knows.

But Simon’s stand is important: denied a voice by modern democracy he persisted and fought to get an explanation. Without him there, the politicians and the media would have skimmed over Sunk Island, and the 800 people would certainly have lost their voice.

Two people then, screwed by the system, and who fought it – and arguably won. In the space of two days. In one city. How many more cases like this are there? And how many don’t get heard?

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The Big Bang Con

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, News and that by Adam Westbrook on September 10, 2008

Ten years of constant work. £5billion. The scientists were ready for the experiment which could have ended the world.

While experts have rubbished the chances of the CERN experiment going wrong,  that didn’t stop the media having a field day.

The talking heads had been lined up- what would happen if a black hole appeared? The headlines were written. The betting shops that their odds decided: 666,666,666,666 to 1. The radio stations had their voxes: what would you do if the world was about to end?

Except it never was going to end. Well, not today.

Its the end of the world as we know it...

It's the end of the world as we know it...

You see, we’ve all been the victim of a bit of a con. Or some kind of calendar mishap.

Yes the big experiment was switched on today with some excitement, but read a little further down this article on the BBC News website, and you find a rather revealing line:

“Cern has not yet announced when it plans to carry out the first collisions, but the BBC understands that low-energy collisions could happen in the next few days.”

Ah. So there never was going to be a “collision” today. And the collision being the thing which the sceptics think would set off the end of the world, makes that a bit of a big deal. None of the coverage bothered to mention that little fact…

More likely if the end of the world does happen, it’ll be while we’re all least expecting it.

Best get some more voxes in then…

News and the credit crunch

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on July 8, 2008

“Oh dear, more economic gloom”, says Jon Snow, rather glibly, in his daily ‘Snowmail’ briefing this evening. Today a major group of businesses have announced what some had feared, and even more already knew: that we’re heading towards a recession.

Banks aren’t lending, so people can’t borrow as much money, so they’re spending less, so businesses are earning less, while oil, food and energy prices continue to soar, meaning we have even less money…and so it goes on.

It’s bad news for a lot of people, but I’d thought it would be worth looking at its impact on the media industry.

Not that people should have much sympathy for an industry of overpaid, middle class trouble makers -but it is having an impact. First in the commercial sector, and today, we’re told, even on the mammoth BBC cash cow.

One industry I know is suffering – and has been one of the first to suffer – is commercial radio. High overheads need to be paid for by adverts. But when the companies can’t afford to pay for advertising….

So we’ve seen a raft of cost cutting measures across all areas. After buying out GCap, Global Radio decided to network on more than 30 stations, saving themselves the salaries of 30 presenters.  Some journalism jobs are going too. Then one radio group The Local Radio Company sells six stations which are losing money – reportly flogging them for a pound each.

Commercial TV too is feeling the “pinch” and it’s local/regional output that’s suffering. Today we hear ITV is to completely scrap it’s nightly 30 minute news programmes, replacing them with a weekly current affairs programme instead. So goodbye local TV news.

There’s still lots of talk of “weathering the storm”, but I don’t think these changes are neccessarily temporary. The two examples above – of increased networking on radio, and the loss of daily local news on ITV – are permanent significant changes to how broadcasting is done in the UK.

Meanwhile over at the glittering palaces in White City, the BBC says even it’s tightening its belt. Speaking at a briefing this morning, the Director General Mark Thompson said inflation was “running significantly higher than [the level on which] the BBC’s [licence fee] settlement [was based]”. They’re already looking at cutting 2,500 jobs, although they said they hoped to avoid wider redundancies.

Even if we don’t have a recession, it looks like the media landscape in Britain will be changed forever anyway.

“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…

Virginia Tech coverage: enough now

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on April 19, 2007

Four days after a troubled student gunned down more than thirty of his fellow students and colleagues and it’s still all out war as far as the networks are concerned. Here in Britain it has cooled off a little bit, but stateside there’s little other news.

And it is with great reluctance that I use the word “overkill” to describe the coverage, not least because of the terrible pun. But there’s not many other words to describe it.

VJ David Dunkley Gyimah had the point nailed on his blog as early as Tuesday, but his concerns have proved even more correct. Cho Seung Hui has gone from a depressed student to a “madman” overnight. In what seems utterly remarkable to me, CNN actually has a jimmy-jib rigged up on the V.T. campus to get sweeping shots from high and low. And it was compounded this morning with the delivery and broadcast of letters, pictures and videos from the killer himself: creepy and haunting, Cho’s seriousness is undermined slightly by his vocal resemblance to Keano Reeves.

Journalists are used to increasing “news management” from press officers and the good ones battle against it. Now, we’ve all fallen for news management by a mass killer.

On CNN International this morning, the script towards the end of an hour of programming went – with no irony whatsoever – like this:

“Your emails have been pouring into us here at CNN. Dan in the Netherlands says: ‘The killer’s video adds nothing to the police enquiry and adds only to the suffering of the families. It worries me that it might inspire another teenager to do something similar like Cho was inspired by Columbine. The networks have gone too far and should stop showing the video constantly.’

Don’t forget to keep sending your emails…meanwhile continuous coverage of the massacres in Virginia continue after the break….”

Audiences on both sides of the Atlantic are clearly both tiring of the coverage and seeing through the hyperbole and journalese that the writers have flung our way. Several times already I’ve heard and seen some of the golden rules of news writing and reporting broken in the race for the biggest yank to the heart strings.

In comparison to the hundred or so people who lost their lives in Iraq yesterday it doesn’t make sense. Will they get each of their names and photos slowly faded onto screen? Will they get their stories read out to the world? Nope.

“No one disputes that this was a major story, and one needing sensitive handling. But as usual you and the other media went over the top in the reporting of it” reads one comment on the BBC News website.

“Seriously, can’t we do better?” says someone else on the NBC blog (via Adrian Monck), “Isn’t it time for news to be news, not endless, repetitive wallpaper that at once offends and numbs?”

Maybe letter writing does work…

Posted in Adam, Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on April 16, 2007

Today’s Media Guardian has a spread announcing the launch of the 2007 Student Media Awards – the annual parade of student journalism talent in the UK.

And for the first time, there’s a category for Student Broadcaster of the Year.

It’s taken 12 months exactly…but maybe letter writing does work:

Letter to the Media Guardian

Shame all three of us are no longer elible to enter though.

[Cheers to Doidge for the tip off]

The trend’s already begun

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on April 5, 2007

Last month I wrote what has to be the most pessimistic of predictions for the future of Channel 4 News, probably Britain’s best quality domestic news product.

A report in the Media Guardian today seems to provide evidence the path to this future has already begun. The amount of “serious factual” programming on the channel appears to have fallen by 25% according to Ofcom.

On the up, unsurprisingly: crap like Supernannies and Big Brother.

But it’s not just Channel 4. The BBC’s flagship 10 o’clock news is potentially facing budget cuts in light of the lower-than-expected licence fee agreement in January.

And as Adrian Monck’s been writing recently, ITV’s news service is tightening it’s belt, with what I only feel able to describe as a piss take new deal.

And that deal’s due to expire…..in 2012, when analogue broadcasting (with it’s requirement for public service news programming) is due to be switched off. It’s not looking healthy.

Incidentally, I’m about to write an essay on news as a commodity…it looks like I’m going to have a lot to talk about!

So the hint is, don’t work in British TV news. Work for the Americans instead. I’m doing an internship at CNN International at the moment which is very interesting and suffering much less from a lack of the greens.

Note: Apologies for the lack of writing recently. The end of term project took most of my energy and my contract at CNN has taken most of my ability to write about what goes on there! Nevertheless I’ll try and bash something out shortly.

A future for Channel 4 News?

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on March 18, 2007

Channel 4 NewsroomChannel 4 chief Andy Duncan’s been making some worrying noises about one of the channel’s greatest assets: Channel 4 News.

As Michael Grade’s been trying to secure future funding for ITV News in the digital era, Duncan’s told a select committee of MPs that Channel 4 News won’t survive in it’s current form.

According to the Press Gazette:

Andy Duncan, Chief Executive of Channel 4, told the cross-party media select committee that Channel 4 News was unlikely to survive in its present form without public subsidy.

He said: “Whilst Channel 4 News is a flagship public service programme on the Channel, it is expensive to make and has limited potential for revenue raising.

“As such it is unlikely to survive in its present form – a one hour peak time programme, containing 40 per cent international news – in a purely commercial environment.”

The reason is simple: broadcasting on an analogue signal, all of the terrestrial channels have a certain public service remit. They’re all using large amounts of airwaves which belong to the public and in return they’re expected to provide us all with some news.

And because of this, and it’s unique public service remit, Channel 4 gets some cash for news.

But hark, on the horizon, the looming spectre of the digital switchover. We know now it’s going to start in Whitehaven on October 17th and will be complete by 2012. By then, all homes will be expected to have a digi-box and analogue transmissions will be turned off.

Broadcasting in naughts and ones is nice and compact. You can fit more channels and and not take up as much public airwaves. And because of this, broadcasters are loosing government cash (except the Beeb, of course.)

And – more worryingly – a channel’s news remit (again, except the BBC), will expire too.  Some channels – likely ITV and Five – may well say “screw news – why should I waste my money on that?”

And it looks like Channel 4 News, in spite of it’s scores of awards and cult following, could be forced to change in the next five years.  Let’s hope it doesn’t ditch it all together.

Sky News announced it was taking itself off the Freeview platform last month. Fellow journo Doidge rightly says the loss of competition in broadcast news can only be bad. Imagine that on a massive scale – and the redundancy consequences.

News is a bizarre commodity- like war, it costs loads to do with little or no financial returns. Not one to pitch to Dragons Den.

Write on

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on February 2, 2007

Apologies first off for the terrible pun which is supposed to be the title of a blog about good writing. Can’t have everything though.

I’m feeling pretty drained after an intensive few days in the first of a series of masterclasses that make up part of my journalism course at City University. Alongside watching Guiness adverts over and over, realising our collective cultural and historical ignorance and sweating away in a box size room full of 40-odd people we’ve also been given an introduction to what I’ve realised is one of the main pillars of journalism: good writing.

It’s perfectly easy to make it in journalism as an alright writer (and probably a shit one too) and plenty do. This week with department head Adrian Monck was about trying to be a really good writer and taking writing seriously.
And in the last few days we’ve got to read and watch some pretty brilliant stuff. The classics were in there: Michael Buerk’s famous reports from a famine ridden Ethiopia, and the beautifully crafted introduction to the World At War. You get a whole new appreciation of them when you try and improve them, and instead write something laughable.

It’s all made me realise how important good writing is even in television, where the pictures are supposed to tell the story. If you look at some of the most famous journalists, they’ve all been good writers: (my favourites) Ed Murrow, Bill Neely, Barnaby Phillips and Matt Frei.

And why is good writing important? Here’s Vin Ray in his rather good book Television News:

“If there’s one area which really separates the best correspondents from the rest it’s good writing…the best scripts can be defining moments in themselves; and the very best are, once heard, never forgotten…good writing and delivery and a lightness of touch will lift and illuminate the driest and most difficult subjects.”

So here’s to good writing. I don’t think I’ll ever achieve it, but I’ll at least try. And if you’re wondering what the hell I’m on about, here’s an example of something special: the BBC’s Matt Frei on poverty in Japan; it’s creative, surprising, conversational and hooks you in:

“It’s 11.15 am. The queue is getting longer – and more nervous. Some people have been here since dawn. Expectations are rising. They’re afraid the free bowls of soup will run out. For many this could be the only hot meal of the week. Listen to the sound of hunger:

[NATURAL SOUND]

No this is not North Korea. Nor a slum in China. But Japan – and these are the homeless of Osaka.”

From Vin Ray, Television News

Torture in Egypt

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on January 26, 2007

On Wednesday, the BBC Ten O’Clock News broadcast a report by their Egpyt correspondent Ian Pannell uncovering endemic torture in the country’s police cells.

A number of videos have starting appearing on the internet, the latest of which shows a man, under arrest, being sexually assaulted with a stick.

Ian Pannell’s report on Wednesday night contained part of this video. To say it is shocking is a massive understatement. Everyone in my flat fell silent when the piece was shown, and it’s been hard to forget.

But it’s caused a bit of a furore on the BBC Editors’ Blog this week. Opinion seems divided on whether it was right to show the video. Some were outright against it:

“I totally disagree with the display of the extremely disturbing pictures displayed on the news. The story was disturbing enough without the graphic images. We are cabable of understanding and believing a story without seeing it….I think the increase in graphic images of people in distress or killed in conflict and so on, on the news is a sad reflection of obsession with sensationalism…”

And some were OK with it:

“Good for the beeb to bring this to a wider audience. By dealing with it responsibly (and not focussing on the gruesomly sensationalist) it’s brought the shocking practice to light – and making people notice.”

The editor of the Ten Craig Oliver seems happy with his decision saying he believed they struck a balance between a need to show what happened “with concerns about exposing the audience to graphic images.”

Bodies in Bags
But should there be a need to strike a balance? I am totally in favour of the BBC reporting on this in the way it did. The role of journalism after all is to expose wrong doing and hold those responsible to account. Some moan that a British audience shouldn’t be exposed to an Egyptian problem, but hey – 700,000 Britons go on holiday to Egypt each year…feel like a holiday there now?

I don’t.

But it brings up the old issue of when is it right to show graphic images. When I spent a training day with the ITV news team last year we got to edit together a practice report about more deaths in Iraq using agency footage.

The 3 minute long tape from Reuters showed blood on the walls, bodies in bags, and distressed women and children.As young idealists we included lots of this – we felt we were telling the story truthfully. Our mentor was shocked and said the images we chose would never make it onto the evening news. It’s too upsetting.

But surely it’s the lack of images like these that have left the Iraq conflict sanatised and detached. All we take away are yet more deaths, more statistics and more burning tyres. And how does that help anyone? 

Click here to watch Ian Pannell’s report.

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Kenya’s Mobile Revolution: a film you need to watch

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on January 6, 2007

Now I try and keep an eye out for these sort of things, and I haven’t found a genuinely surprising and stereotype-overturning piece about anywhere or anything in Africa since the excellent Inside Africa films I blogged about ages ago.

In fact the only people out there fighting Africa’s corner are the armies of bloggers like E.K. Bensah and Sociolingo – if you read their blogs (and I strongly urge you to do so) you’ll see a different side to the continent; a far cry to the famine, disease and war western newspapers and broadcasters would often have us believe.

Which is why it’s such a great surprise to see “Kenya’s Mobile Revolution” coming up next week on Newsnight on BBC 2 in the UK.

As part of BBC Newsnight’s Geek Week 2.0, they’re showing a film made by their tech reporter Paul Mason. He travelled to Kenya to see how mobile phones are literally changing every aspect of people’s lives.

Mobile Phone in KenyaTwo mobile phone companies have created an 80% network coverage of the country – which I’m sure is better than in the UK! – and even the Maasai nomads in the Rift Valley are texting each other. Even more, mobile operators are pioneering services yet to appear in Europe, like being able to send someone else cash with your mobile.

More and more people are getting them and Paul Mason reckons the mobile could be a democratising tool in a country where the ruling elite’s rife with corruption.

It’s beautifully shot, insightful, and crucially Mason answers the big question for us: “so what?”

When I was last in Ghana back in 2003, I noticed people were using mobiles; hawkers sold mobile phone covers on every street corner. Ironically, I refused to take a mobile phone out there, but if I had, I would have had constant coverage.
So if you’re in on Monday night, watch it. If you’re not, Sky + it. But being the techno-savvy lot you are, I’m sure you’ll watch the online preview now available. It’s 18 minutes long but well worth it.

Click here to watch the online preview

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“Never a better time to be a journalist”?

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on December 31, 2006

An interesting article from November’s Press Gazette caught my eye last week.

Andrew Neil: ‘It’s Never a Better Time to be a Journalist’ (November 9 2006) gives an insight into what Neil thinks jobs for people like me will be in years to come.

While some are pessimistic, especially for the poor sods training to be print journalists, the Scottish ex-editor’s not so negative…although he thinks big changes are afoot.

“In the age of the internet and 24-hour television and radio news means that journalistic ethos will soon have your newspaper belly up and in the graveyard.”

This was his most interesting idea:

“The journalists of tomorrow will write for newspapers, contribute to magazines and podcasts, work for TV production companies, write their own blogs, because you wouldn’t give them a column – and then they will sell the blog back to you at an inflated price…

“The journalist of the future…will  have more than one employer and become a brand in their own right.”

A brand in our own right? So is this future one of the permanent multi-platform freelancer? I don’t think that would be so bad.

And I think we can see the branding idea beginning around here too…perhaps before long there’ll be Chris Doidge Ltd, Rachael Canter Inc., James Laidler Corp and Adam Westbrook Inc (as scary as that sounds!)?

Suddenly 2007 sounds quite exciting…