Looking into the Ghetto


I spent the morning at Warsaw’s Rising Museum, which was opened ten years ago in what was once the capital’s tram power plant to commemorate the tragic (and betrayed) 1944 uprising against the Nazis — the one the Soviets failed to support, halting their advance nearby while the Germans demolished the city, and the Western allies failed to assist.

As I have spent much of the past four years focusing on reporting on Syria, it his hard for me not to draw parallels with the awful plight of the anti-Assad rebels. The photographs of razed Warsaw remind me of the towns of northern Syria and a large portion of the historic city of Aleppo.

And in the museum you can read this editorial written by George Orwell complaining about the absence of support for the uprising offered by the Western allies. “The only thing they ask is, ‘Give us weapons,’ and when these weapons do not arrive, when their friends keep silent, they cannot understand. But there will come a time when they will, and we will pay the price for our deliberate, cold calculations.”

Orwell on the Warsaw Uprising


The price is already being paid when it comes to Syria: the refugee crisis impacting Europe is one price — and a costly one as it is ripping the European Union apart.

Another has been paid already: the prolonged conflict has become ever more sectarian, as was predicted by several reporters covering Syria, including myself, and it will have consequences not just for the immediate region but further afield.

Another cost has been to fuel recruitment among desperate Syrian fighters by hardline and al Qaeda-linked Islamist militias and, of course, the Islamic State terror army. Neglect allowed the rise of IS, as I and others predicted would happen, and the consequences of that are being seen on the streets of US and European cities.

In fits and starts, shaped by the day-to-day partisan battles back in Washington, commentators from the libertarian right and the non-interventionist left have argued there are no moderates among the Syrian revolutionaries. And this is untrue.

The claim is made by writers who have no authority, no first-hand knowledge, and who have not given the uprising against Bashar al-Assad the courtesy of ever bothering to find out on the ground what is going on. Syria is a dangerous place — as I know — but unless you mix with the fighters and their civilian supporters, how can you make the judgement call that they are all extremists?

Moderate is in the eye of the beholder, of course. Moderation is relative. But the rebel ranks are full of people I would describe as moderates. Yes, many, especially those who come from rural areas, are religious and cultural conservatives; their womenfolk may wear the hijab; their idea of democracy is sketchy at best. Their victory will not usher in a Western-style democracy. Aleppo won’t turn into Chevy Chase or Hampstead. But they are not jihadists and they have no truck with beheadings or bombing innocents in the West.

Their fight has been for human dignity — for the right to have some say about their governance. Their fight has been against the secret police and the pillage of the state by a ruling elite. Their fight has been for the right to be allowed to start down the path of change and reform and to develop. And our excuse has been to say it is too difficult.


Bloggers as Journalists

Are bloggers journalists? Is blogging and journalism synonymous? A majority of bloggers may think so. A survey released this week by PR Week and PR Newswire found that 52 percent of bloggers questioned consider themselves just that – journalists. That’s a jump apparently from a 2009 survey when only a third of believed that what they did was journalism.

Another interesting fact in the survey – I am grateful to www.TechCrunch.com for highlighting it – suggests that bloggers are far more open to using other blogs and social media sites for research purposes: 91% of bloggers and 68% of online reporters “always” or “sometimes” use blogs for research. Not so with print journalists: only 35% of newspaper and 38% of magazine journalists surveyed use blogs or social networks when researching. It should, I believe, be second nature by now for print reporters to be keeping close tabs on blogs and online sites – and for them to use social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook for research and self and institutional -marketing.

PRNewswire argues that the study shows media convergence is happening quicker now. I draw different conclusions. The survey results suggest to me that most bloggers don’t understand the distinction between most blogging and most journalism, and that practitioners in the traditional print media still are not exploiting media convergence and the online World enough either to break stories or market them or to gather information. It is as though we are still dealing with two different, partially uncomprehending cultures. Whether that is partly a result of age differences between bloggers and print journalists, I have no idea. But there are plenty of examples of old journalists who have embraced the online World to great advantage, both for themselves and for their reporting.

Whatever the reason for the traditional print media’s failure to embrace media convergence it potentially has alarming consequences in terms of audiences and revenue streams. Whether the traditional media like it or not they have to make their peace with the Internet, mobile phone and wireless technology and media convergence and to find ways to transition more intelligently whereby they have a Web-first attitude. If they don’t they will become as irrelevant as land phone lines or as cable delivery is fast becoming.

Writing for the Web doesn’t diminish the writing or the journalism per se. I began my journalism on newspapers back in media pre-history. For my first job in the 1980s at the weekly Tribune newspaper off the Gray’s Inn Road in London I had to write on a typewriter (you remember those things) and the typewriters were nicknamed after the great and good who had gone before and, according to legend, had used those actual machines – George Orwell, Michael Foot and Nye Bevan. The only computer in the office – a monstrous early desk-top – sat on the desk of the then editor, Nigel Williamson, who with great pride would show it off but who, from what I could see, hardly touched the thing and understood it little. It was a relic before its time!

My second job was towards the final years of “Fleet Street” and one of my Saturday evening duties at the Sunday Telegraph every fourth or fifth week would be to assist the night news editor to change copy “on the stone”, i.e. direct the printworkers to change the hot metal pieces during breaks in the edition runs so stories could be updated or corrected.

All has changed. Of course, a lot of the romanticism has been lost – there is nothing quite like grabbing a paper off the print-works with your byline on the front-page and there was something glorious about the crescendo clatter of typewriters as the first-edition deadline loomed. With the romanticism, a sub-culture has disappeared that involved a lot of drinking but had as a spin-off off-the-job training as old hacks shared with younger ones the “tricks of the trade” – and those tricks went beyond just learning how to get your expenses accepted.

But a lot of good has come from the brave new World of media: more information and from a variety of sources with different class, gender, cultural and racial points of view; greater dissemination of information; computer-assisted investigative journalism, etc. There is more immediacy – both a good and bad thing. Journalism is more three-dimensional in all kinds of ways and deeply exciting for it.

One of the resistances to blogging by some of the more traditional-minded journalists has to do, though, less with Luddite sentiments and more to do with the poor quality of the writing and thinking and reporting on offer in the blogs. When it comes to politics and news and current affairs, too many bloggers believe that what they should be doing is what they see the likes of Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hanity or Glen Beck on the right and Keith Obermann and Rachel Maddow on the left do every night – namely, rant. And that is not journalism and not even high-quality opinion journalism.

Blogging can be journalism when being done by a trained journalist or by an amateur who has trained themselves. And for both the end-goal is journalism. What do I mean by that? For it to be journalism, surely, there are certain standards and approaches to be followed? Facts and views have to be gathered, people have to be interviewed off or on the record and that can’t all be done just by online research. Those standards may be relaxed when it comes to opinion journalism, but even then there are certain rules of fairness and accuracy to be observed. Above all, actual knowledge can come in useful – the best of journalism is digging out the truth, as much as it can be known, throwing light on complex problems, explaining process, bearing witness to conflict and loss and terror and tragedy.

Of course, by those standards a lot of what passes for journalism in many newspapers and print magazines and on television is not that – it is entertainment. There is, of course, little difference between a news-room full of journalists re-writing wire copy the whole time and a blogger bashing way at the keyboard in his sitting room.

And that leads on to a point that was touched on above but needs to be stressed – most bloggers when it comes to politics, news and current affairs are not news-gathering. They are commenting on facts – and often half-truths — that others have gathered and twisted them to fit in to their ideological perspective or party affiliation. That can be fun but it is not journalism.