The Benefits of Narrow-mindedness (in podcasting!)

Fotosearch_blindersPodcasts have gone mainstream – that is the inescapable conclusion as audiences for online audio grow exponentially.

‘S Town’ made by the producers of the earlier hit ‘Serial’, has become the latest star in the podcast firmament achieving 10 million downloads in just four days. The series – recorded over 3 years – revolves around the compelling story of John B McLemore, an exceptional and talented middle-aged man from a small town in rural Alabama.

S-Town and Serial have both proved – beyond doubt – that podcasts have mass appeal, and are challenging traditional radio broadcasters for the way in which people access audio programming.

But their broad success hides another potential draw of podcasts – to serve niche groups of listeners which radio stations have traditionally overlooked.

The beauty of podcasts is that they are ideally suited in catering to more select audiences and interest groups. They can narrowcast in contrast to the broad reach of terrestrial radio networks.

Niche podcasts can range far and wide serving a multitude of differing audiences; from those curious about the intricacies of international finance and how money makes the world go round, to others fascinated with astronomy and what makes up the whole universe turn.

Technology has democratized the airwaves (or at least the on-line audio pathways). Anyone with an internet connection, a microphone, a laptop and sound-editing software can theoretically put themselves on the same playing field as NPR, BBC and other established broadcasters.

Such access also means that the quality of the some of the offerings from DIY podcasters is of wildly variable quality. Just as the internet has put ‘fake news’ and respectable reporting on the same platform – so it also allows sub-par podcasts to bracket themselves alongside stellar productions.

If niche interest podcasts are to stand the test of time – as well as stand out amid an increasingly crowded field – they must serve up high quality, focused programming. As more and more podcasts are launched so producing a polished and appealing product becomes increasingly important.

My own experience in producing and editing the World Bank podcast series, ‘Between 2 Geeks’ is illustrative of this trend. Another example of similar programming is ‘Pocket Economics’ made by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Both podcasts are squarely aimed at a particular constituency – in this instance those interested in international development. Both have been made to a high standard – technically and editorially – so they that offer a stimulating, informative and convenient (i.e. not too long) listen.

Podcasts are an ideal medium for numerous other organizations which possess a specific field of expertize, to connect with a particular audience. Think-tanks, universities, even hobbyists, can use this tool to serve – and even reach beyond – existing constituencies, generating new interest and awareness in their areas of expertize.

Additionally audio has the ability to generate an intimate and personal connection with listeners, in a way that largely eludes print and television. Good stories and strong presentation generates loyal audiences. With the right pieces in place, podcasts can create communities and become a tool in joining together like-minded individuals.

But ultimately the loyalty of listeners will not be won with the subject matter alone. Amid the growing chatter of on-line programs, niche podcasters will succeed by ensuring that their content is compelling, conveniently packaged and above all interesting.

Either way, podcasts – both for broad and narrow audiences – are the destination of the future for great audio.

People over Product – Ensuring that podcasts are heard.

World Bank bookmark‘A unique partnership to reduce poverty and support development’ – that is the briefest of descriptions of the World Bank’s mission.

A more lengthy explanation would fill an encyclopedia, detailing the kinds of projects the Bank is involved in, from improving sanitation to fighting corruption.

But much as this information is important in describing The World Bank, it also misses a vital and often over-looked component in explaining the institution and in communicating what it does.

That missing element is the ten thousand or so employees who are situated in over one hundred countries around the globe.

The stories of these people, what they do, how they came to work at the World Bank are endlessly fascinating. In my four years with the Bank, I have worked with a financial expert who was once a teacher in rural Ecuador, an anti-corruption specialist who served as a lawyer to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and an administrative assistant who studied medicine in Kosovo.

Those who have come to work at the World Bank arrive with often fascinating personal stories, which says a great deal about them and their talents but also something significant about the institution.

Communicating about The World Bank is normally concerned with explaining program objectives, projects, research, and accomplishments. But without diminishing the critically important work of the Bank in fighting poverty, it is often those working within it who possess an often overlooked and compelling narrative.

With this in mind, I decided to showcase a number of current and former World Bank personnel on subjects unrelated – but sometimes tangentially linked – to their day to day work. I wanted to demonstrate the multi-dimensional and multi-skilled characters who fill the Bank and illustrate that ‘something extra’ about them.

As a result, I sought out people who had authored books, both fact and faction. I interviewed a former administrative assistant who had composed a volume on Cambodian food, as a means of recovering parts of her country’s culture destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. I also spoke to a former World Bank Treasurer who along with his wife, penned a children’s book explaining global trade. Other interviewees included a communications officer writing on the life of women in Iran, a senior researcher’s fictional murder mystery involving Charles Dickens, as well as an action packed thriller set in Somalia, a children’s book involving a mischievous cheetah and a novel ranging across continents involving a cast of characters struggling to deal with poverty.

The edited interviews form individual weekly episodes in a podcast series called ‘Bookmark’the first of which goes out today on the World Bank’s Sound Cloud Channel.

The decision to put them out on-line in an audio format rather than as blogs is deliberate and reflects what I believe is the both the best medium for these interviews and an increasingly important tool for communications.

In previous postings I have written about the growing importance of on-line audio as well as its commercial potential (‘the podcast gold rush’). I have sought to show the mushrooming creativity and huge potential of this medium.

As a communications professional I believe it is vital for large international institutions – like the World Bank – which have a global mission and message, to fully participate in the rapidly expanding realm of on-line audio. But in doing so, the podcasts must be inventive, well produced and most importantly – a good listen.

Communications in the digital age is composed of a seemingly endless range of easily accessible media products. Only by competing with the multitude of other on-line offerings on the quality of the audio rather than worthiness of the institution will it be possible to successfully describe what it is and why it matters.

In the case of the World Bank it is the distinctive experiences (and voices) of the staff that make it stand out – and through them it is possible to more fully tell its story.

In that vein I urge you to listen to ‘Bookmark’, and consider how the people rather than the product can amplify what you do.

To hear the first episode: ‘A Cheetah’s Tale for Children – An Ecologist’s Story from the Plains of Africa’ go to:

You can also find further episodes on Twitter via the hashtag #Bookmarkpodcast

Richard Miron is a Senior Communications Officer for The Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative, and formerly worked for a number of years as  a reporter for the BBC.


A cold wind blowing through New Hampshire

What could be better for a politics nerd than spending a few days in the cold and snow of New Hampshire following wannabe Presidents of the United States?

That is how I passed the last few days in the run up to the Democratic and Republican Party primaries which are taking place tomorrow.

There’s a saying that while, ‘the people of Iowa pick corn, the people of New Hampshire pick presidents’.  For a small state (45th out of 50 in the US) it has a big role to play in influencing which candidate will represent their party in the electoral contest for the White House.

New Hampshire holds the first primary vote (as opposed to caucus, which takes place in Iowa a week earlier) – and as such is known as a major testing ground for the candidates.

It is therefore a great place to view American politics up close. All the candidates – Democrat and Republican – rush around the state pressing the flesh, kissing babies and trying desperately to ooze empathy and understanding in a monumental effort to impress upon locals that they are the best man or woman for the job.

In my forty eight hours in New Hampshire I got the full immersive experience seeing three Republican candidates (John Kasich, Ted Cruz and Chris Christie) at small town hall meetings, and also attending a major Democratic gathering which hosted speeches by both Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

At this time, New Hampshire is crammed – seemingly at every corner – with campaign posters, activists, journalists, and political obsessives like myself who have come to witness the action.

For me, the experience was telling in what it said about both about American democracy , American society, and the candidates themselves.

In no particular order these are my observations:

    • A carnival of American democracy.

Those aspiring for the office of leader of the most powerful nation on earth have to face the voters in small and intimate settings and make their case to be the candidate. I saw John Kasich – Governor of Ohio in a draughty barn take questions for almost an hour on issues ranging from funding for schools, to internet access in rural areas, as well as American involvement in Syria. People had turned up (no invitations necessary) despite the falling snow from throughout New Hampshire as well as neighbouring states, to ask their questions and get a measure of the candidate. This speaks to a facet of American society that is sometimes missed from overseas. America is a society founded on what was in the 18th century the revolutionary idea that leaders are there to serve the people, not the other way around. This streak of accountability still runs deep, and the primaries are a powerful demonstration that this mindset is alive and well. It is uplifting to see this democratic spirit in meeting rooms and community centers of 21st century small town New Hampshire, and is a testament to one of the great strengths of the USA.

  • The meekness of the media

That spirit of holding potential leaders accountable may be observed by ordinary people but it does not seem to extend to the media. Despite the wall to wall attention on TV, there was an almost deferential regard for the candidates. Watching Jake Tapper – one of CNN’s main heavyweight hosts – interviewing Donald Trump was akin to witnessing someone being beaten with a feather. Tapper asked Trump gently about a statement he’d made calling for a return to waterboarding and methods ‘a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding’ for suspected Islamist militants – despite such actions being war crimes under US law. The mogul responded with a potted answer about changing the law once he was President, while confirming that he was ‘fine’ with ‘beyond waterboarding’. That answer seemingly satisfied Tapper who then moved to more urgent matters such as the mathematics of the forthcoming electoral battle in New Hampshire. There was no follow up, rather Trump was allowed to run rhetorically riot unchallenged. Tapper’s flaccid interviewing is par for the course with the mainstream cable and network news outlets. They seem more concerned with losing access to the ‘stars’ like Trump than the pursuit of journalistic inquiry (as happened to Fox after Megan Kelly had the temerity to question Trump’s offensive comments about women).

  •  The Republican divide – between right and hard right 

The USA is deeply split not only between left and right, but also within those respective camps, reflecting a deep sense that something has gone wrong with the political system and the society it is meant to serve. On the Republican side, there is a battle between the hard right insurgents and those of the more moderate ‘establishment’. I attended a rally for Ted Cruz – the banner holder for the evangelical and ‘tea party’ wings of the party. In the packed gym of an elementary school, he spent just as much time railing against the Republican establishment as he did against President Obama.  The mood of the audience was angry, booing mentions of Washington DC and calling for Democratic Party opponents to be, ‘put in jail’. There was a sense from these people – overwhelmingly white, less well-off and from outside the main cities – that the America they knew had been taken from them by sell-out politicians from the left and right, and that they had to fight (electorally) to get it back.


  • The Democrats – a battle between the head and the heart

That sense of disillusionment is also alive among Democrats, although not as deeply or angrily felt among Republicans. At a major Democratic Party event held in the city of Manchester, Hillary and Bernie Sander’s supporters sat on opposite sides of an indoor stadium chanting and waving banners for their respective champions. Sander’s followers – overwhelmingly youthful – spoke of him in breathless terms normally reserved by teenagers boy bands. For them Bernie was the real deal, who spoke in simple, uncompromising terms about what was needed to make the country right in the face of growing economic inequality, foreign adventurism and more. No matter that he’s unelectable as President, for them, he is authentic particularly in comparison to Hilary.  When asked what they would do if she became candidate , a group of college students said they would probably choose not to vote. There is no doubt that seeing Hilary in action is also to witness her vulnerability. Her speech hit all the right buttons, but even its apparent passion seem manufactured and market tested. With her experience, polish and power she should have swatted Bernie to one side by now, but instead she is in the trenches of a hard fought political battle – and this is even before she has to face the real opposition of the Republican candidate for President.

  •  The only sure thing is uncertainty

There is a sense in talking to people who have witnessed many Presidential contests that this one is somewhat different. There is a real battle underway about the future of the country – not just about policy but also about its very essence. Moving between Republican and Democratic supporters is to enter different cultural universes, where attitudes – on homosexuality, guns, religion and a host of other issues – sit in direct opposition to each other. Political commentators have been predicating the fall of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders since they first appeared as candidates – and yet these two opposites continue to flourish. The opinion polls which once could be depended upon to provide some guide to what will happen have been confounded by the unpredictability of the voters.

Witnessing the fight for New Hampshire primary is an education in the both the positives and negatives of American electoral contests. It is also an eye-opener on the raw divisions in American society. And while every election is important, this one is highly significant given the uncertainty about the state of the country and where it is heading. So in anticipation of the vote tomorrow and of the others to come, I am fastening my seat belt for the rough and eventful ride in the coming year

The Podcast Gold Rush

golden-microphoneFool’s gold or a golden age? These are the two divergent views on podcasts that are being voiced as on-line audio garners more and more attention.

As explained in a previous blog I sit firmly with the ‘golden age’ viewpoint. Podcasts represent the greatest opportunity for accessible high quality audio since BBC Radio began broadcasting from a makeshift studio in central London ninety five years ago.

That may be a slight exaggeration, but the development of smartphones, growing access to the internet, and the innovations of digital recording technology are unleashing a new bonanza of audio production.

But firstly to address the detractors. Jessi Hempel from Wired sees the podcast phenomenon as overblown with an uncertain future. ‘Like those blogs of yesteryear,’ she writes, ‘the promise feels huge. But as that brief era also taught us, the golden age doesn’t last.’

She cites an estimate of 180,000 active podcasts, suggesting that many of them are like the prospectors of the Wild West who ended up with handfuls of gravel as opposed to the riches of their dreams. She also contends that most people still haven’t figured out ‘how to listen to them yet’, and that podcasts are hard to share given the lack of user-friendly platforms that would make on-line audio simple to produce and be heard. As a result Hempel says, ‘only 17% (my italics) of Americans have ever listened to a podcast’.

Only 17%! That amounts to 55 million people – a figure that would make most radio executives weep with joy. In addition that number which dates from last year is an increase of 16 million or 5% from 2014 – a rate of growth that is the stuff of fantasy for those same executives.

This phenomenal expansion is being driven by a combination of new technology and innovative content.

Podcasts cater to a wide variety of listeners’ interests as well as allowing access cut to the convenience of the consumer. Content can be disseminated in whole programs or alternatively smaller bite size segments (The Moth). They can be heard in weekly episodes or binged upon marathon sessions (Serial).

Digital technology also means that there is a far more ‘democratic’ environment for program makers to produce and broadcast their wares. Where once studios, a radio frequency and sound technicians were required, now there is only need for a computer, an internet connection and a basic understanding of user-friendly software.

New technology also means that listeners need only a mobile phone or computer to hear the podcasts.

And where America is currently leading in popularizing on-line audio the rest of the world is likely to follow. According to recent research global access to smartphone technology is exploding with 7.1 billion in 2014, compared to approximately 7.5 billion a year later. Most of those new phones are being taken up by people in the developing world with the greatest growth in the Asia/Pacific Region and Africa.

All of this goes to highlight the vast untapped riches of podcasts, not only in the US and other developed countries but around the world.

Savvy investors, broadcasters and media networks are waking up to the possibilities – commercial and otherwise – of this new audio landscape.

Just this week The Economist reported that ‘an industry to support podcasting is developing’.  It cited a number of examples of new media companies devoted to hosting and monetizing on-line audio.

But the podcasting ‘industry’ is in its infant stages and as such it is destined for big shake-ups.  Writing in Nieman Lab two months ago, Joshua Benton laid out his assessment for the future of this newly popular medium which he summed up as, ‘exciting, evolving, and trouble for incumbents’.

Benton foresees many of the current podcasts falling by the wayside leaving a more modest number of polished productions, along with a few commercial ‘platforms’ upon which the audio can be made and uploaded.

Amid all the uncertainty of this nascent medium, one of the few certainties seems to be that as it develops, many podcasts that exist today will face into obscurity.

Those quality podcasts that remain and stand out, then have a chance of hitting the rich seam of large audiences. They will also create usher a new era of inventiveness and creativity for audio. That will prove equally true of commercial and public service productions for listeners from Los Angeles to Lagos.

So for any doubters – the gold age is for real and there are riches to be won for those pioneers who venture into this new and exciting territory.

Listening to the Sound of the Future

serial 3Many others have already said it, but ‘Serial’ – the recently concluded audio podcast originating from WBEZ Public Radio in Chicago is exciting, outstanding, compelling, gripping and much more besides. But it also represents something even more than these superlatives.

‘Serial’ is the future of radio, or more accurately audio, and the probable pioneer in a new golden age of audio programming. The programme also demonstrates that BBC Radio, which has always prided itself on the supremacy of its output, has nothing which compares to the creative and journalistic oomph of this American podcast.

But firstly for those who happen to have been living on a distant planet or have had three month long internet outage, then let me try to sum up the phenomenon of ‘Serial’. It is a non-fiction story told in twelve weekly episodes. The podcast chronicles and examines in minute detail the murder of an eighteen year old Maryland high-school student, Hae Min Lee, and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syded, for the crime.

The case raises doubts about Syed’s guilt, who at age 18 was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder.

The story unfolds across the weeks led by an unlikely Sherlock in the form of journalist Sarah Koenig. Her sassy, quirky personality, along with first-person asides drives the narrative. The episodes are filled with a lot of in-depth research, interspersed with Koenig’s personal musings, doubts, and revelations. Along the way we learn a great deal about the case, but also a lot about the reporter herself.

The combination of meticulous research, Koenig’s reporting style and the suspense-driven format melds it into a compulsive product. Without any marketing campaign, ‘Serial’ reached five million downloads on iTunes quicker than any other podcast before, and to date has achieved an incredible forty million downloads in total.

In reflecting upon ‘Serial’ there are a number of points that stand out.

Firstly, it demonstrates the particular stylistic and journalistic strengths of American public radio. Having grown up listening to the BBC and then working for it for 17 years, I was educated to believe that de-personalized reporting with tidy endings was best and right. ‘Serial’ broke many of the cardinal rules of radio journalism that I was taught, with its format held loosely together, through the literal and metaphorical ramblings of the reporter, along with its refusal to come to any definitive conclusions on the subject matter.

The podcast also drew upon the easy informality and personal storytelling which permeates much of American public radio, and which is so foreign to its British counterpart. In the UK there are sharply polished current affairs programmes, along with carefully constructed radio-plays. These are labour intensive products drawing upon the extensive resources of the broadcasting colossus that is the BBC. Public radio in the US has no such riches. It relies upon the generosity of individual and corporate contributors to keep going. But it has made a virtue of its paucity, using less to create more, particularly through stripped-down first person narratives (the best examples of which can be heard on ‘This American Life’ and ‘The Moth’).

The variations between British and American audio output also reflects deeper cultural differences. Americans are generally less formal and more confessional than their UK counterparts both in everyday life and in broadcasting.

The second point about ‘Serial’ is that thanks to the internet, it is charting a new path ahead for great audio programming. Its trajectory is reminiscent of HBO’s success on cable over fifteen years with its on-screen drama serials.

HBO was able to use the cable subscriptions to fund programmes that were too risky or profane to be made by the established networks. Without HBO we would never have had ‘The Sopranos’, ‘The Wire’, ‘Six Feet Under’, ‘Band of Brothers’, and more. And where this cable provider first ventured others followed: AMC (‘Mad Men’, ‘Breaking Bad’), Showtime (‘Dexter’, ‘Homeland’) and more. Now in the further evolution of on-screen drama, online providers such as Netflix, Amazon and others have got in on the act, producing further dramatic riches including, ‘House of Cards’ and ‘Transparent’. This has all been made possible thanks to technological advancements which have liberated programmes from TV networks, and increasingly from television itself, freeing both the provider and the viewer.

This is where ‘Serial’ may have found a new home for audio programming free from ‘radio’.  It is delivered on-demand, allowing people to listen at their own convenience, on line, on the phone, in whole episodes or in small portions. Additionally Serial fits perfectly with the financial model of American public radio, which is reliant upon on hand-outs to keep functioning. It gives more bang for the contributor’s buck, supporting a specific programme rather than a complete network.

So thanks to new technology and sound journalistic skills, ‘Serial’ has created something innovative, accessible and utterly compelling.

It has also signaled that while the fate of radio may be uncertain, the future of audio (at least in the US) sounds good!

The Never-Ending Story

circles[1]The conflict rumbles on as if on a loop – just when we all thought that it had gone quiet the incendiaries start flying back and forth again.

I am not (thankfully) speaking bombs and bullets but rather the war of words about the foreign media coverage of the recent Gaza conflict.

This latest outbreak began with a piece by Matti Friedman a former Associated Press staffer, accusing the international media of playing a starring role in fomenting hatred of Israel and Jews, and to failing to treat the story as anything other than a series of caricatures with Israel playing the villain and the Palestinians the victim. He also accused his former boss – Steve Gutkin – of burying a highly significant story about a peace offer made some years ago by then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during negotiations with the Palestinians, because it ran counter to the AP’s predetermined view of the Israelis as the rejectionists.

In reacting to Friedman’s initial piece I found myself – as a former Middle East based journalist and UN staffer – recognizing certain aspects of his thesis. I also felt he was right in suggesting that some journalists reporting from Gaza abandoned objectivity and that Western news organizations had wilted before Hamas’s implicit and explicit censorship.

Steve Gutkin also responded to Friedman’s piece describing both the general thesis and specific allegations as ‘hogwash’. He maintained that as AP’s onetime Jerusalem bureau chief he was motivated by a desire to tell a difficult and complicated story objectively and without bias, adding also that he did categorically did not bury a piece, as was alleged .

The row between the two (now former) AP journalists has mushroomed with a further piece by Friedman and Gutkin, and an added intervention by a third former member of staff, on what may or may not have occurred and why. This argument is best left to those who were most closely involved in what occurred at the time.

But it is worth examining the opposing viewpoints of the two main protagonists, to highlight their shared mistaken understandings concerning the media coverage of Israel and the Palestinians.

Beginning with Matti Friedman, who describes the ‘global mania’ of news organizations in covering Israel, which he says is rooted in a ‘hostile obsession with Jews.’ He blames news organizations for elevating the Israeli-Palestinian story to disproportionate levels of coverage – seemingly out of malice – thus drowning out other more urgent and deserving issues from around the world.

I do share some of his frustration that tragedies and outrages elsewhere are woefully under-reported in comparison to the copious coverage afforded to Israel and the Palestinians. But Friedman also misjudges a number of issues to support his belief that it’s all about malevolence towards Jews, which it is not.

To begin with, just because there is excessive coverage does not mean it is all ill-intended. Added to which there are a range of factors driving the extent of the coverage of Israel (and by extension the Palestinians), many of which have little to do with hatred but much more to do with familiarity and convenience.

In an earlier post on my blog, I asserted that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ‘is simply the Bible and Koran brought to life 24/7 on-line, on TV, Radio, and in print. Billions of people around the world, overwhelmingly Christians, Moslems, and Jews, know of the ‘Holy Land’ from their holy texts’. Added to the ancient story, Jews – individually and communally – have played an influential and often tragic role in the Christian and Muslim worlds over the course of centuries. The Jewish presence has been a fellow traveler, beneficiary, contributor and victim in the development of Western (and Middle Eastern) societies. In our ever shrinking world this translates into a fascination among many for Israel and for Jews.

For some it induces infatuation, for many others it results in hatred. The media did not originate this situation, which predates the internet, TV, Radio, and even newspapers. Journalists consciously or unconsciously are the influenced by the currents of history that swirl around them – they are not removed from world they describe – they are part of it.

There are also other less esoteric factors which feed the modern media’s thirst for the ‘Israel story’, including the freedom of the press and the relative lack of danger to journalists compared to elsewhere in the region. Added to which, Israel’s size, and modernity in everything from communications to hotel services makes it a prime destination for headline hungry journalists. While Friedman sees all this attention as a bad thing, it can and does play to Israel’s advantage. When Israelis are under attack –  be it by missiles from Gaza, suicide bombers on buses, or fanatics driving diggers at civilians –  the cameras of the world are pointed in its direction. Atrocities – be they in Congo, the Bangladesh/Myanmar border, Southern Sudan and elsewhere, invariably take place in the absence rather than the presence of the mass media.

Of course there are those, including educated and influential individuals who have an obsession with this little corner of real estate at the far end of the Mediterranean, not because they care about the fate of the Middle East, human rights or even indeed the well-being of Palestinians but rather because they are consumed with hatred – for Israel and ‘Zionism’ (as conveniently differentiated in their own minds from Jews). Sadly, in my experience this is becoming more common.

I recently encountered such sentiments from a former BBC colleague – once an editor, who now teaches (!) journalism. In a number of Facebook comments he compared Israeli actions in Gaza those of the Nazis, wrote of Israel as a sick society, and spoke of the apparent power of the Israel lobby in getting a well-known BBC radio presenter to tone down his normal aggressiveness when interviewing an Israeli official. This is not an argument against Israeli policies, it amounts to a diatribe against the very essence and existence of the country.

Some take this lowly standard as representative of all journalists or indeed anyone who questions Israeli policies including its military actions in Gaza or settlement construction in the West Bank.

Let’s be clear – criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic. That would make most Israelis self-hating Jews. I also know many fine journalists whose reports cast Israel in a negative light, but who are motivated by sound critical thinking, sharp observation and legitimate questioning. Over the years Israeli governments have taken wrong, misguided, and immoral actions, which have been deserving of comment and condemnation.

The attention and criticism of Israel are varied in their sources and their intentions. Matti Friedman is right to be vigilant but he is wrong in thinking that this is all to Israel’s detriment, or a modern manifestation of an ancient hatred.

On the other side of the debate about the media coverage, Steve Gutkin also overstates and simplifies. Firstly he says that the job of journalists when he was in Jerusalem was not to ‘frame’ the roles of Palestinians and Israelis but rather to, ‘simply bear witness to what we saw unfolding before our eyes’.

The media are not accountants with microphones; their job is not just to record statistics and events on a never ending list. This is akin to suggesting that history is just a series of dates with events attached. The act of witnessing is not a sterile activity carried out far removed emotionally and psychologically from the action. It is influenced from where events are seen, by whom, and the ‘baggage’ that the witness brings.

Gutkin himself talks of his own influences including most importantly his belief in ‘humanity’ as somehow freeing him of the clutter of bias. He fails to see that his viewpoint is also partial and in its own way – tribal, rooted as it is, in particular values and assumptions.

The ‘respectable’ news organizations – to which AP belongs – have the job of interpreting the ‘facts’ and framing them, with as much fairness and objectivity as possible. This often means explaining differing narratives containing contradictory versions of the same events. I argued in my blog and continue to insist that the overwhelming majority of news organizations failed to do that in the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas. They mostly stuck to a particular predetermined view and were guided by it – of Israeli might and cruelty, versus Palestinian weakness and suffering. And while elements of that description are true, it did not reflect the whole story. Contradictory narratives don’t make for simple story-telling but they represent a truer version of what often occurs.

Gutkin also shrugs off too easily the connection between some of the reporting from Gaza and the ensuing outburst of anti-Semitism witnessed – most obviously – in Western Europe. The media was certainly not the sole or necessarily the major cause for the racism that consumed the streets of Paris, London, Berlin and elsewhere. But its willingness to fall in with a single reading of events combined with irresponsible emoting by some, did help ignite the dry tinder of anti-Semitic sentiment that had built up within many countries.

Steve Gutkin states by way of conclusion that that the ‘real danger (to Israel) does not come from the media reporting the news’ but rather from journalists like Matti Friedman and others who are sparing Israel criticism and thus leading to the demise of the two-state solution.

This is nonsensical in a multitude of ways. The Middle East is a state of huge upheaval as mutually loathing groups go about killing each other with varying degrees of barbarity. The only thing that unites ISIS, Assad, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, Iran and others is their shared hatred of Israel – and this – not anything else –  represents the greatest threat to Israel.

There are indeed some supporters of Israel who won’t countenance any criticism of the country or its policies, and who freely use the bludgeon of anti-Semitism to quell any dissident views. But these apologists for wrong Israeli policies – such as the settlements on the West Bank at the expense of Palestinians – don’t call the shots. Israeli Prime Ministers are the ones responsible for driving the country towards the looming  political disaster of a one-state solution.

The ‘story’ of the Israelis and the Palestinians has become a global template for much more than the two peoples fighting over a patch of land. It is a stage for different and competing truths set amid an ancient backdrop and fuelled by very modern passions. Discussion of how it is reported reflects these same currents.

In an effort to bring balance and closure to this issue, it’s seem certain that Steve Gutman and Matti Friedman are unlikely to agree on much when it comes to the treatment of Israel by the media, and much like the conflict itself their argument will run and run.

Looking back at Gaza

Gaza entry exitAs the firing subsides in Gaza and Israel (at least for a while) so the post-mortem on the attendant aspects of the conflict has begun. Adding a substantial contribution to the already much discussed issue of the media coverage of the conflict and of Israel in general is a lengthy piece by a former Associated Press staffer, Matti Friedman in which he politely lambasts his former employer along with other foreign media organizations for bias and fuelling the fires of anti-Semitism that have flared around the world.

As a former correspondent (for the BBC) in Israel and the Palestinian Territories as well as a UN official based in Jerusalem the piece piqued my interest and caused me to reflect also upon my own experiences.

There is much that Matti Friedman writes that resonates, when he describes the disproportionate coverage that Israel receives, and the way that the foreign media has broadly speaking accepted a narrative of the conflict which prescribes given roles to Israel (as the guilty party) and the Palestinians (as the victims).

Firstly to deal with what he accurately pinpoints as ‘the global mania’ with Israeli actions. I alluded to the interest that the ‘Israel-Palestinian story’ gets in a previous post, describing the way in which it is perceived (often unconsciously) by many through the lens of history, along with much accompanying religious and cultural baggage.

The story of the Jews in particular has all the ingredients for a blockbuster; including drama from before the time of the Pharaohs to the current day.  There is much tragedy, some hope and ultimate victory in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The history of the modern State of Israel contains elements so unlikely that they seem to belong to fiction rather than fact.  On the basis of one (much debated) narrative – a ragged group of survivors and idealists founded a country (amid tragedy for the Palestinians), reviving a long dead language, fighting off its enemies while forging it into one of the most prosperous and dynamic nations on earth.

Very few around the world remain impartial when confronted with this on-going drama, particularly when it is set amid current global religious and ideological passions.  At times of crisis and combined with other elements it brings out both the anti-Semites (in their droves) and philo-Semites. Personally I prefer neither to be hugged nor kicked on the basis of my identity, but it seems that many people around the world are incapable of seeing Jews as ‘normal’ individuals.

These passions feed into the way in which the story is reported. Israel’s own choices have also opened it up to differing consideration from many other countries and conflicts around the globe. During the recent Gaza conflict the Israeli authorities facilitated the movement of international journalists in and out of the territory. This allowed high-profile reporters and presenters to come and go during the conflict and for news organizations to rotate their staff during the hostilities.  (This contrasted with the Israeli decision to close off Gaza to foreign reporters during a previous round of fighting in 2008- 2009, and for which it was rightly condemned by news organizations).

The Israeli actions enabled high profile presenters such as Jon Snow from the UK’s Channel 4 News to anchor the programme from Gaza and then to return to London to further excoriate the Israeli authorities with passion and emotion during a news broadcast. That may seem unfair (and unprofessional), but it is also the price of having a free society.

It was also notable during the recent military conflict that Israeli military fire came close to the hotel where journalists were staying in Gaza (and from where some missiles were launched by Hamas) but left them unscathed. This reminded me of my own experiences as a correspondent reporting during Second Intifada in the West Bank and Gaza as well as at other times, when we would ring up the IDF to inform them of our positions to avoid being hit.

Journalists could roam through Gaza with relative freedom (considering this was after all a war zone) to witness the deaths and destruction wrought by the conflict. They cannot be criticized for reporting on what they saw – most especially the numerous civilian men, women, and children killed by Israeli army actions. I know from personal experience how difficult it is to remain detached when faced with the body of a young innocent killed in a conflict. The media are right to pose questions about the use of Israeli force, how it was deployed and how much care was, or was not, taken to avoid civilian casualties.

Israel must be held to account not in comparison to elsewhere in the Middle East but rather to other Western armies operating under similar conditions. And yet in reading and watching the coverage out of  Gaza it seems the media held Israel to an altogether different standard. Civilian casualties were often portrayed as the consequence of deliberate Israeli vengefulness and bloodletting.

I have seen for myself how Western armies operate during conflicts in the Middle East, the Balkans and elsewhere, and tragically there is no such thing as a clean conflict. I still have the photos I took in an Afghan village of what remained after a US air strike destroyed a family compound killing about fifty civilians in pursuit of one Al Qaeda operative. While there has been some questioning by the media over the extent of civilian casualties (numbering in their tens of thousands) in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, it has been muted by comparison to Gaza.

Where Matti Friedman is entirely correct is in the failure of news organizations and their correspondents to point out the controls and ‘pressures’ both implicit and explicit exerted upon them in Gaza by the all-pervasive and tightly run Hamas media operation. This inaction can only be seen as – at best – moral cowardice by media organizations.

It was also notable in what remain unobserved. One senior BBC correspondent wrote after a week of reporting in Gaza that ‘he saw no evidence.…of Israel’s accusation that Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields.’ This is a very strange statement to make. Firstly, just because the journalist didn’t see it doesn’t mean it didn’t occur, particularly when missiles aimed at Israel were emerging from built up areas inside Gaza. Secondly, knowing Gaza’s physical geography it’s safe to conclude that if Hamas operatives did come out from the territory’s packed urban confines, they would have been quickly struck by an Israeli drone or aircraft fire. If they weren’t in the open they were by definition sheltering in civilian neighbourhoods – thus they were using human shields (similar to the way other guerilla forces  – such as the Taliban – operate).

The Gaza situation sits in stark contrast to Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, where Western journalists have become targets, and where danger severely constrains their ability to report. One only has to consider the monstrous murder of James Foley by crazed ISIS fanatics or the death by Syrian army missiles of Marie Colvin in Homs to understand how risky reporting from these areas has become. Word of journalists being abused and kidnapped in Iraq and Syria are kept quiet by media organizations, and I know of former colleagues exceptional in their bravery, who having suffered unreported close shaves now understandably choose not to return to these areas.

The openness and relative safety for journalists of Israel and by extension Gaza have made it the ‘convenient conflict’.  As a correspondent I benefited from the almost unrestrained access to report, excellent communications infrastructure (fast internet, well equipped TV studios, large local news bureau), short distances between locations (vital for breaking news), good air links between Tel Aviv and the outside world, as well as the decent hotels with well stocked bars. All these factors made this corner of the Middle East a journalist’s utopia.

For the same reasons it has made it a convenient place for international political and humanitarian organizations to function. During my time with the UN in Jerusalem, there were approximately 23 separate agencies and organizations working in the oPt (occupied Palestinian territory). It was – a former senior official told me – the greatest per capita concentration of UN resources in the world – more than Iraq or Syria with millions displaced, more than Congo or the Central African Republic wracked by conflict, gross human rights violations and disease.

So what can be concluded from all this? Is this – as Matti Friedman suggests – connected to deeply rooted anti-Semitism? My answer is that I don’t know.

I do know that if Israel is to remain a free society, then it has to allow the media to operate without interference.  On this point during the recent conflict, it remained true to its democratic roots. But in that same vein, it must also account for the Palestinian civilian casualties, and explain to the fullest extent how it operated, and if more could have been done to avoid those deaths.  Israel has in the past instituted State Commissions of Inquiry in the wake of conflicts to examine its conduct, notably after the First and Second Lebanon Wars. It would do well to similarly examine the recent Gaza conflict.

But just as importantly, the (Western) media must also account for itself and for its own conduct including apparent omissions and failures in the reporting of the conflict. It must question where reporting may have ended and emoting began, if it held Israel to a standard apart from all others, and why it allowed Hamas a free pass in controlling the flow of information.  Its coverage had consequences in fuelling the passions (and hatred) of many on the streets of Paris, London and elsewhere towards Israel, and by extension towards Jews.

The media is instinctively averse from turning the lens of scrutiny upon itself, and will – in all likelihood – veer away from any self-examination. It is better at calling out the wrong-doing of others, than admitting to its own faults. But whatever it chooses to do or not, the picture it painted of Gaza 2014 and its consequences are already etched in the consciousness of many around the world, and will serve as a further chapter in this never ending story.

More is less – on social media and the war in Gaza

Social-Media-Icons-cloudDespite the summer heat there’s a blizzard blowing; not one involving snowflakes and cold, but rather consisting of hot air and bile. I am referring to the avalanche of tweets, Instagram images, and Facebook messages that are filling cyberspace on the subject of events in and around Gaza.

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is a subject as mentioned in my previous blog which, (to paraphrase Abba Eban  a former Israeli Foreign Minister), never misses an opportunity to become an opportunity, for debate filled with much passion, but little sense.

Numerous (often unverifiable) postings are circulating that purport to present the ‘reality’ of the situation in Gaza and Israel. Twitter is abuzz with images under various partisan hashtags including #gazaunderattack and #israelunderfire. The aim of these postings is to deliver sharp and often shocking messages to back up one or other of the competing narratives.

The late publisher of the Washington Post, Philip Graham is attributed with saying that, ‘journalism is the first draft of history’. If that is true, then social media is the semi-legible half-considered scrawls that precede words being committed to paper.

While the openness of the internet is a welcome antidote to the old days when governments were able to tightly control the flow of information, the over-abundance of data is creating a fog of confusion for those struggling for something more than partisan propaganda. This situation is also negatively impacting the way in which the formal – old style – media operates.

When I began working as a radio reporter in the early 1990’s radio features were edited using razor blades and sticky tape. They were dispatched for broadcast from far flung places by post or over crackly phone lines. Deadlines were hours or days away, allowing time to cultivate contacts over relaxing and reimbursable drinks.

Within a few short years the arrival of satellite and digital technology transformed the methods and pace of the work. Suddenly stories could be filed with relative ease from virtually any dusty backwater with a rudimentary technical aptitude and a few small bags of equipment. Rolling radio and TV news networks meant that deadlines were constant with little time to digest latest developments, let alone a hurried lunch. We reporters working on news networks became the ‘satellite monkeys’ or ‘the gob on the stick’, filling broadcast time from our makeshift studios on rooftops, in fields, or wherever we happened to find ourselves. Despite these limitations and frustrations, reporters worked according to an established order determined by editorial standards.

But today, social media has created an environment where dis-informational anarchy reigns. It is illustrated in all its (lack of) clarity with the current situation in Gaza. Pictures, video, clips and messages often parading as facts are being uploaded for immediate consumption.

This has created a situation in which the image has become the story. Type ‘gazachildren’ into a search engine, or Twitter and you will be confronted by nightmarish images of dead and injured infants. You cannot discuss, explain away, or respond in any reasoned sense, in the face of such pictures. They numb conversation leaving only outrage and shock in their wake. The problem lies in the fact that they mostly come without context; in identifying the casualties, the circumstances of their deaths, and in describing the nature of the conflict itself. For the most part these images are stripped of anything which might explain – while not diminishing – such deaths.

Added to that, is the fact that many of the images being circulated are unverifiable and of uncertain provenance. Some are being disseminated with the deliberate intent to deceive. The BBC’s Jon Donnison was caught out in unwittingly tweeting an image he believed to be from Gaza but which was in fact originally from Syria.

The unreasoned hysteria in discussing events in Gaza and Israel, combined with the flood of immediate postings from the conflict zone, has resulted in a ‘race to the bottom’. This means publishing the most immediate, striking, provocative and shocking image that can be found to reinforce a given point. These range from the gruesome to the bizarre, including a tweet I recently saw, seemingly suggesting Israel’s responsibility for a bleeding horse lacking milk for her foal.

The military conflict in and around Gaza is particularly intense, as is the media war. It is – in all senses – asymmetric, pitting wildly differing forces against each other, both of which differ in their aims, tactics and standards. In the military sphere it is lives that are being lost and shattered. In terms of the media, it is journalistic integrity, reliability and understanding that are the main casualties in this battle for hearts and minds. In their place have come hate, prejudice and hysteria which are now spilling far beyond the Middle East to the streets of Europe, and elsewhere.