Archive for ‘Journalism’

Some Things I’ve Written, or I’m Still Alive

By , 29 September, 2015, No Comment

Though I’ve been very quiet on here since starting my PhD, I have actually been commenting quite a bit elsewhere on these here interwebs. For those who aren’t on Twitter (where I do extensive self-promotion in between posting pictures of my food), here are some things I’ve blogged.

I’ve been writing a regular monthly column for the website (who cover the intersection of science, technology and development) on the role of the private sector in development. I’ve covered:

Fairtrade and other attempts at ethical consumption will probably not work, even if they make us feel better about ourselves

Automation imperils employment in the developing world. Anthropologist James Ferguson’s has bold (but ultimately unworkable) vision for a society without jobs.

India’s new ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ law mandating firms donate to social projects is really an inefficient tax on corporate revenue, and a step backwards.

The best way to empower women in business might not be the C-suite, but the supply chain: hire women-owned businesses to source your parts or supply consulting services.

India exploits a loophole in international trade law to sell cheap drugs to sub-Saharan Africa. If they change their policies under US pressure, poor Africans will suffer.

In a world of finite resources, one-shop oil, gas and mining towns are planning for the day when the goods run out. Companies should help.

I’ve also blogged a little bit for the blog of my department’s policy journal, which I briefly edited last year. Recent pieces include:

How the Iranian government charmed the Western press, and thereby saved the peace process.

Foreign correspondents lie, or how news organizations conceal the work of local fixers they employ in conflict zones.

What is capital, and how did capitalism survive the financial crisis? An interview with economist Geoffrey Hodgson.

I’ll try to remember to cross-post all future blogging here going forward, and maybe even find time to write some original pieces for this site again soon*.

Finally, I’ve been interviewed about my research over on BBC Radio 3. It’s a special episode on Indian history, so I’m talking about the East India Company, who are one of several key historical predecessors for the kind of contemporary corporate politics I’m researching for my PhD.


*Don’t hold your breath.

On Charlie Hebdo and the culture of free expression

By , 11 January, 2015, 1 Comment

I’ve been trying to avoid writing about Charlie Hebdo, so I’ll keep this short. I won’t add to the debate about whether the cartoons were offensive to Muslims, or racist to France’s minorities, or just crude, because the best thing about writing online is that you can link to stuff rather than repeat it.

What concerns me is the idea that the only ‘right’ response to the attack is to re-circulate the paper’s cartoons. Jon Chait and Ross Douthat have argued that the right of free expression is meaningful specifically because it protects expression that some find objectionable. And we have to promote that objectionable speech, to show that we’re still protecting it, or the terrorists win.

But the reason liberal societies protect free expression, including offensive speech, is the belief that there’s a market for ideas. And that bad ideas, if they circulate freely, will lose out: people won’t buy those magazines, or watch those TV shows, or download those songs, and the ideas will disappear.

A central component of that ideal is that we have to be as free to not consume or circulate speech as we are to make it in the first place. Insisting that everyone who believes in free expression share a Charlie Hebdo cover or they’ll be an apologist for terror is entirely out of spirit with what free expression means. It is thought policing, which is as fundamentally illiberal when it appears in the pages of New York Magazine as when it comes from the mouths of clerics.

The best response to the attacks is to actively have these debates – about whether the cartoons were good satire or bad satire and why, about how terrorism comes about and what to do about it, about identity in modern Europe – not silence them all as somehow demeaning the dead, because debate is how free societies work out what they believe. If we don’t have debate anymore, we’ve got nothing.

David Miranda Is A Journalist

By , 20 August, 2013, No Comment

This weekend, the British government detained David Miranda, for nine hours at Heathrow Airport, where they also confiscated some flash drives and laptops.

The detention took place under the UK’s Terrorism Act, which is badly written enough to provide cover for behavior that has naught to do with preventing acts of terror. In this case, the detention is a reaction to the Guardian’s reporting on the NSA leaks, and any detention that treats journalism as a crime is wrong. This comes on the heels of Whitehall threatening the Guardian, and sending GCHQ representatives to the Guardian newsroom to oversee the destruction of some hard drives. That too is wrong.

None of what follows is a defense of the UK’s thuggish behavior.

But there is something disturbing about the way the Guardian has presented its relationship with Miranda.

Miranda is the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist spearheading the NSA reporting, and they live in Rio. Miranda was passing through Heathrow on his way back to Rio from Berlin, where he had been staying with filmmaker Laura Poitras, who has been collaborating with Greenwald on the reporting.

When the story first broke, it appeared that Miranda had been traveling in a personal capacity. We now know that Miranda was traveling on a trip funded by the Guardian and was carrying some flash drives pertaining to the reporting. We also know, from a previous account of the dealings with Snowden, that Greenwald has been sharing details of his work with Miranda for some time. And we learn from Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger that Miranda often helps Greenwald with his work.

The Guardian initially concealed these details. The New York Times broke the news about the flash drives and the plane ticket, at which point the Guardian updated its own story to include this information. But even then, Greenwald told the New York Times that Miranda, “is not even a journalist,” a claim repeated by Alan Rusbridger.

But David Miranda is a journalist, because he is committing acts of journalism while he is in the Guardian’s employ. His role as described above is similar to the temporary staffers western news organizations routinely hire in developing countries. Local journalists who do the background reporting for pieces with American or British bylines. Fixers who make calls and arrange meetings with difficult sources. Drivers and receptionists who make and take deliveries that contain sensitive material.

It is an ongoing struggle inside news organizations to argue that so long as these people are involved in the production of news, they are in danger of persecution by governments in countries where there is no press freedom, and that they deserve the same protections that major international news organizations afford to their full-time staffers. When Rusbridger enumerates a set of duties any fixer would recognize, and then says, “he’s not a journalist,” he is hurting the cause of people who work in far more dangerous places than London, New York or Rio.

Moreover, if those debating the incident decide it doesn’t matter whether Miranda is a journalist, they endanger thousands around the world who have the (mis)fortune to be related to reporters. Many governments would love to round up the families and friends of journalists and interrogate them about their loved ones. Many reporters live in fear that this will happen. They guard against it by keeping their work secret from family and friends and making sure the authorities never think otherwise.

The UK’s actions have set a terrifying example for other governments that family members are fair game, but if those challenging Britain’s actions are not absolutely clear that Miranda is a journalist, not just a journalist’s partner, it will make that example worse.

I understand that for the purposes of evaluating whether the UK acted wrongly Miranda’s role is not the key fact. Either way, the detention was an attempt to suppress the story, and either way, detentions of anyone for a non-terror issue under a terrorism law are wrong.

Yet events do not take place in a vacuum, and while British and American journalists may be evaluating this incident with respect to press freedom in our countries, others around the world will be applying its lessons in their own political context.

Journalism is beset from all sides. Journalists in the places where, relatively speaking, things are not as bad as they could be need to make choices and use language sensitive to the interests of our colleagues in far more precarious positions. David Miranda is a journalist, as are many others, and we should protect them all.

How Unilever Got Caught Discriminating Against Women (And My Part in Getting Them To Change)

By , 10 February, 2013, No Comment

It’s been a very good week for journalism and feminism.

It actually started a few weeks ago, when my friend Kate wrote a piece about a contest she’d entered to win a commercial space flight. The contest was sponsored by Axe (or Lynx as it’s known in the UK), the men’s deodorant brand, and Kate was disturbed by the sexism of the contest’s marketing. Ads feature damsels-in-distress saved by handsome men (lifeguards, firemen) who subsequently ditch these men for other, less Hollywood-looking men in astronaut suits. The tagline: “Leave a man. Return a hero.” The campaign gives the impression only men can be astronauts, and that only men can enter the contest, and Kate was right to kick up a fuss about it.

On Sunday, one of these ads aired during the Super Bowl, and I noted the sexism of it to the friends I was watching with. To my amusement, not one person had picked up that there was a contest being advertised at all. And when I told them, everyone was convinced that it had to be for men only even though I told them I knew of at least one woman, Kate, who had already entered. So I wrote my own post about the campaign, noting that in addition to being sexist, it appeared to be thoroughly counter-productive.

That’s when things started to get interesting. Late on Monday, both Kate and I got word via our blog comments that in other countries, the contest was open to men only. Countries such as Russia, Mexico, the Ukraine, Indonesia, Kuwait, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. That was despite the fact that Axe spokespeople had told both of us that the contest was open to women when we’d asked.

I was angry that Axe had lied to us, and that they had confined the contest to men in the markets where they thought they could get away with it. But equally, I wondered if they had misjudged which markets those might be. At least *some* of those countries had to have anti-discrimination laws.

So I did some digging. A Russian lawyer pointed me to clauses in the Russian Constitution and Criminal Code that barred “abasement of dignity” on the basis of gender “in mass media.” A Mexican lawyer sent me to the country’s advertising regulator, whose code of ethics bars sexism in marketing materials. And a quick scan of the Unilever website (Unilever is the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate which owns Axe) found that the firm’s own code of ethics bans gender discrimination. I wrote up the relevant laws and codes in a second post and asked Axe to clarify how it was going to square the contest rules against them. That was Thursday.

Meanwhile, the sexism of the advertising was beginning to get press coverage elsewhere, at Discovery magazine and the BBC and the #astrogrrls hashtag on Twitter was busy.

Late on Thursday night, Axe came back to me with the following statement:

Unilever has communicated to all markets in all regions, that the contest is open to both men and women. Upon review, certain markets are currently revising their terms & conditions to reflect this directive.


I write a lot about sexism and a lot about companies behaving badly, but as much as I advocate for the significance of journalism, it’s really quite rare when it leads so quickly to this kind of change.

What made it work was the fact that we – myself, Kate, Remco Timmermans, Carmen Victoria, reporters in Russia and around the world, and space geeks on Twitter – were able to coordinate with each other and eager to share information instead of jealously guarding our own scoops. One of the big surprises for me about Unilever’s mishandling of this was their assumption that it would be possible to have different contest terms in different countries, and to tell reporters and activists in different countries different things about the contest, without any of us comparing notes. Discrimination and false PR statements are always wrong, but in a digital age, they are also stupid. You will get caught.

I rail a lot against the state of contemporary feminism and in particular at the disappointing vitriol-to-substance ratio of online feminist discourse. If you’re following me on Twitter, or have the (mis)fortune to know me offline, you probably hear enough about this in one day to last you a lifetime. This week was a much-needed reminder of all the good the web can do for feminist organizing, when we’re using it to make each other stronger and not to tear each other down.

Has the Business Press Failed the Public Trust?

By , 14 March, 2012, No Comment

That’s the title of a panel I recently moderated on behalf of Public Business, featuring New York Times business editor Larry Ingrassia, Reuters finance blogger Felix Salmon, Wall Street Journal reporter Suzanne Kapner, American Banker reporter Jeff Horwitz, and Columbia Journalism Review business media critic Dean Starkman. Here’s some video of the discussion:

I’ve also archived some tweets from the night, and written up a few highlights for the Public Business blog.

The Stratfor Emails

By , 29 February, 2012, 2 Comments

On Sunday night, Wikileaks began releasing its latest cache of documents, this time a set of 5 million emails from Stratfor, the self-described ‘global intelligence’ company. The emails are the result of several Anonymous hacking attacks on Stratfor in December. Anonymous turned the emails over to Wikileaks, who subsequently shared them with 25 partners – a combination of news outlets and activist organizations.

My reaction was one of deep discomfort. These emails are the product of outright theft by Anonymous, and in publishing them, Wikileaks and its partners are taking ownership of stolen goods.

This comes as News International is under investigation for hacking the phones of celebrities, royals, and a murdered teenage girl. How can journalists justify accepting a cache of stolen emails, while calling for the heads of peers who did the same with voicemails?

Hackgate and the case for collaborative reporting

By , 20 July, 2011, No Comment

A post up at Public Business on the U.K. phone hacking scandal and what the way the story was revealed tells us about the power of collaborative reporting:

Stories this complex, with tentacles that reach deep into multiple powerful institutions – News International, the Metropolitan Police, Downing Street – need to be tackled like a hydra, from all sides at once. One news outlet can try to do it all, but, as Rusbridger’s article shows, it works better if each news team has time to focus deeply on one angle, and the ability to share findings freely with those who are coming at the beast from another side. Moreover, a story of this type, one that will raise shocking questions about institutions so embedded in our society, whose authority and honesty we are taught to trust, cannot break through if it comes only from one corner. True though the revelations may be – and Davies’ work was flawless – they are too easy to dismiss until they have been cross-checked and verified by multiple voices.

Read the whole post here. It’s a follow-up to this post on the hacking scandal, which looked at the importance of introducing transparency to the reporting process.

A poor blueprint for digital journalism

By , 19 May, 2011, No Comment

I wrote a post yesterday for the Public Business blog about the disappointing research on digital journalism that Columbia Journalism School put out last week. It speaks to a number of the business model issues I’ve written about here – the niche-ification of news, the mismatch of supply and demand in digital advertising, the pros and cons of paywalls – but not in a way that I found sufficiently detailed or comprehensive:

It explores a handful of strategies for making news pay online, but it emphasizes that each one must be accompanied by bean counting on the editorial side, beyond what will come naturally from crashing production costs.

While it takes note of sites that have managed to eke out profits on a teensy budget, its business-side focus means there’s not enough evaluation of the content these sites have produced. It asks, for example, whether the hyperlocal model can support ‘serious accountability journalism’ but then fails to establish which – if any – of the hyperlocal sites profiled (TBD, Baristanet, The Batavian, Patch) qualifies as providing ‘serious accountability journalism.’

In failing to answer that question, this report doesn’t do much to challenge the contention made by last year’s reports from both Columbia Journalism School and the F.T.C. that certain types of public interest reporting are too fundamentally expensive to fit in the new market, that they will have to be supported by the public and nonprofit sectors. [More on these proposals here.]

We believe strongly that on the business beat, there is a unique case, both ethically and financially, to be made for nonprofit funding for certain types of stories, which is why we’re doing it.

But we would still like to see more discussion of the public-interest potential of for-profit media models. There is lots of good discussion about how to make news profitable, and lots of good discussion about how to make news better, but there is not enough discussion and research that tackles these questions together. That can’t be a good thing, for the media or the public.

You can read the whole post here.

I’m going to be doing most of my blogging on media industry issues for Public Business, and cross-posting or excerpting them here. But if you’re following this blog specifically for media industry coverage, you might want to follow Public Business too.

How Information Travels

By , 4 May, 2011, 3 Comments

For the past few days, I’ve been reporting round-the-clock on the Pakistani fallout of the bin Laden assassination. In the process, I’ve been able to play a small part in one of the fascinating side-stories of the assassination: the discovery of Sohaib Athar, an Abbottabad local who live-tweeted the sounds of the raid (helicopters overhead, then a massive explosion when one copter crashed) without knowing what he was hearing.

The Poynter Institute’s Steve Myers has done a great piece on how news of Athar traveled, and my role appears to have been, essentially, that I sit at the intersection of two networks: the network of people who follow news on Pakistan, and the network of American journalists, media critics and wonks. From the first network, I picked up early news of an unidentified helicopter crash in Abbottabad, and passed it on to Chris, who was visiting New York and watching the news alongside me. Chris did some clever sleuthing (more on that in a moment) to learn more, and came across Athar’s tweets. We both tweeted about Athar at around 12:38 AM on Sunday.

As Chris describes in his stellar post on the experience, my tweet happened to get traction (despite my having a relatively small follower base) because it went to my second network: American journalists, media critics and policy wonks who were, at precisely that moment, trying to get more information on the raid President Obama had described an hour before.

Chris’ role was different. He had the instinctive knowledge of technology to think of using Google Realtime to pull up tweets about Abbottabad from before Obama’s announcement, he recognized Athar’s tweets for what they were (a live account of the raid) and in describing them as such, provided the narrative frame that others could latch on to.

Here’s Chris’ account of what made Athar’s tweets so compelling:

Given a popular narrative of Bin Laden hiding in caves and the like, to find out he was living in a mansion somewhere so quiet, so genteel and so near to the heart of the establishment came as a surprise. The key thing that made Sohaib’s liveblogging from earlier in the day so compelling was that it was completely unwitting, mirroring our own disbelief that Bin Laden had been quietly residing in the Pakistani equivalent of Tunbridge Wells all these years, without any of us knowing. The story chimed perfectly with our own emotions. And because the story had been unwitting, it was also candid and honest, cutting through the hype and speculation that the 24-hour news stations were resorting to.

I agree with this, but I would add something else. At least for me, the power of Athar’s story was as a reminder that ‘war zones’ are also people’s homes. It brought to life the mundane details of daily life, and the poignant struggle of trying to live daily life–in Athar’s case, just to have a quiet work night–in one of the most dangerous and maddening countries on earth. As Athar told me when I interviewed him for Forbes, he moved to Abbottabad a few years ago from Lahore precisely to shield his family from the violence then engulfing the city.

What we saw in his tweets was a man who had run from the madness only to have it running after him. What we witnessed was the moment he realized it had caught up with him. That tension between what people really care about in Pakistan and the violence that prevents them from moving on with their lives, the bitter irony of life there, is something I’ve written on often. Yet no matter how much reporting I do, it doesn’t cease to affect me emotionally. And when, after the news about bin Laden had broken, Athar realized what had happened, and began to receive an avalanche of requests from journalists, he tweeted, “Bin Laden is dead. I didn’t kill him. Please let me sleep now.” For me, that’s an absolute punch to the gut.

Chris’ post makes another really great point about how Athar’s relationship to Twitter and his sudden celebrity progressed during the first 24 hours of the story:

As the story matured and his fame rose, Sohaib took on the role of citizen journalist, becoming a correspondent of sorts (not many other residents of Abbottabad are on Twitter, he remarked, it’s mostly Facebook). He conducted interviews on television, and ventured out into town to take photographs and report back on the mood in the town.This is a far cry from the cynical caricature of Twitter as an echo chamber – a place where nothing new is said and everything is relentlessly retweeted. As the story progressed, Sohaib came to the wider community’s attention and it in turned shaped his role in the affair. His relationship with Twitter evolved – it went from being a place to remark on the events that had taken place, to realising their significance, to realising his own significance, and then finally embracing it with intrepidness, intelligence and good humour. I might have been one small factor that sparked the process off, but I definitely can’t take any credit for the phenomenon he has become – that’s entirely to his own credit, and something that we should celebrate.

I’ve really nothing to add here, except to say that I think this is very much the ideal of how social media and citizen journalism is meant to work. Not everyone can grow into their new status as a one-person-broadcast-network with such speed and grace, which is why I’m so often skeptical of how it will evolve as a model, but Athar’s transformation is nothing short of a triumph.

We’ve Launched, Part 2

By , 25 April, 2011, No Comment

Public Business is now launched in London as well as New York. More video goodies, thanks to Flashboy:

Public Business Launch, London, Part 1 from Maha Atal on Vimeo.

Public Business Launch, London, Part 2 from Maha Atal on Vimeo.