Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

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.

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In the dark corridors of power

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on November 3, 2006

This week I learned how in the dark corridors of power, politicians contrive to screw over journalists. And then I learned how to do it myself…

It seems that politicians have been trying to hoodwink journalists since year zero. What really amazes me is the outrageous lengths they go to manipulate the press and deceive the public. And what amazes me even more how many journalists willingly tag along.

It happened in 1938, when the government did a deal with the BBC to support appeasement and keep Chamberlin afloat. And in 1956, the government tried flat out denying their involvement in Israel’s invasion of Egypt. And in 1974 the US government tried flat out lying to the press over Watergate…except they weren’t lying – in the words of the White House Spokesperson, their previous statements had become “obsolete”.

WestminsterThese days, screwing over journalists is known as “media management.” In Britain, the goverment has all sorts of systems in place to exploit the media: complex timetables, called the GRID, which co-ordinate ministerial statements and bury bad news as effectively as possible. Ministers in the lobby “leak” stories to undermine opponents or boost their careers. Each government department has a press office which produces long ‘media handling strategies’ and every utterance on radio and TV closely monitored and recorded.

As part of an intensive week learning about how government works, we had to swap sides and play the government press officer. Our task was to produce a media handling strategy and a press release for a controversial (and fictional)  government announcement about pesticides.
It was basically an exercise in learning how we will be continually deceived, misdirected, diverted and controlled by the political machine throughout our careers.
After outlining to the fictional minister (imaginatively named John Smith) the announcement he must make and the controversy surrounding it, I then gave a list of the possible responses (farmers would like the announcement, and campaign groups wouldn’t). Then I had to come up with a strategy for handling the media and it went like this:

  1. Completely undermine a serious scientific report, saying it wasn’t scientific enough.
  2. Hype up  the government’s own study, which supports the minister’s decision.
  3. Go overboard expressing the minister’s sympathies with the other side.
  4. Take any journalists  who might support the decision out for lunch to get them to really support the decision.

Finally, I wrote a press release so convoluted that not even an academic could understand it. The controversial announcement was buried right down in the middle of the release and was packed full of made up quotes.

And at the end, I was almost quite proud of myself. But I am never, ever, taking a press release seriously again. They are evil, pure evil! 

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