Sunday, 23 September 2007

How the deaths of 80 desperate Haiti migrants at sea can go unreported

And still on the McCann coverage: while Madeleine disappeared on the night of 3 May 2007, early on 4 May at least 80 people perished when a boat sank in the Caribbean. Some of the victims may have been eaten by sharks; many were women and children. Yet the British media, while giving the McCann story wall-to-wall coverage, have been largely silent over these ‘disappearances’.

Take a look at Peter Hallward’s brilliant exposé of the Haiti disaster and his alternative perspective on the McCann coverage at According to the site’s home page: ‘Haitianalysis aims to provide young Haitian journalists a direct route to English speaking audiences, bypassing the need for corporate intermediaries. To accomplish this we plan to provide monetary, technological, and human/translation resources to young, inspired Haitian journalists from poor backgrounds. We also aim to provide a positive perspective on grassroots civil society and look at the under-reported news and events in Haiti and that affect Haiti.’
As Hallward reports, around 75 per cent of Haiti’s population ‘lives on less than $2 per day, and 56 per cent live on less than $1 per day’. Punitive international trading arrangements mean that Haiti’s poor remain poor. ‘Every serious political attempt to allow Haiti’s people to move (in ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s phrase) “from absolute misery to dignified poverty” has been violently and deliberately blocked by the US government and its allies in the international community. As a result, in a normal year, an average of around a thousand of Haiti’s most desperate or most reckless citizens try to escape this misery by sea.’

Thus, early on Tuesday 1 May, around 160 desperate people crammed into a 30-foot sloop at the northern Haitian city of Cap-Haitien and headed for the neighbouring Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI). What happened early in the morning of 4 May when the sloop was intercepted by a TCI police boat is unclear. Some survivors claim the TCI boat rammed the boat and then tried to tow it further out to sea. The police, however, say the boat sank as they tried to tow it out of ‘heavy seas’.

A report on the tragedy by the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation (MAIB) branch in August concluded there was no evidence to suggest the TCI police launch deliberately rammed the sloop. But it does criticise the police for failing to identify procedures for the safe interception of Haitian migrants. Hallward continues: ‘The MAIB investigators further demonstrate that a whole series of failings in seamanship, communications, logistics and planning severely hampered the subsequent search and rescue operation.’

Yet this disaster has been largely ignored by the British media. Type ‘Caicos’, ‘Haiti’ or ‘Haitian’ into an online search facility of a national newspaper and you are most likely to find some useful tips about Caribbean holidays. As Hallward concludes: ‘This is business as usual. It isn’t very hard to see why most foreign observers of Haiti seem to find fantasy more palatable than fact.’


Thursday, 13 September 2007

Beyond the distorted news values of the Madeleine drama

The massive coverage of the Madeleine McCann drama (with countless column inches and broadcast hours being devoted to the twists and turns of the tragedy) reflects a distorted system of news values which promotes “human interest” and sensation above more significant political, cultural, economic and psychological issues. Even commenting critically on these news values is in danger of further feeding the media frenzy.

So why not let’s shift the focus? Driving to work on Tuesday (September 11, 2007) I listened to “The Choice” on BBC Radio 4. I was transfixed. This was broadcast journalism at its very best. Michael Buerk interviewed a convicted paedophile and his wife who had stuck by him, encouraging him to seek treatment.

Is there any more controversial issue? How quickly the tabloids damn paedophiles as “monsters”, “perverts” “evil”. Yet here was a journalist handling with sensitivity the extraordinarily delicate issues involved. And in response, “Clare” and “Ian” (who had sexually abused his daughter) spoke with remarkable honesty and courage about what they described as their “family disaster”. With the media circus following the story and the eventual imprisonment of “Ian”, we learned how mother and daughter were mocked and ostracised by their local community – and forced to relocate.

But behind every such tragedy lie human frailty, guilt, hopelessness, confusion. And in this case there emerged, as Buerk kept on probing gently (whilst never denying the seriousness of the abuse), the profoundly moving desire of “Clare” and “Ian” to survive and re-affirm family life.
The interview, then, showed how journalism can move beyond the sensational and throw light on to the dark side of the human psyche: it did not condemn but acknowledged the essential humanity of a man widely demonised as a “monster” – and the wife who stuck by him.

Beware anonymous sources behind latest ‘cyberwarfare’ scares

So the big news now is that the West is facing a major new threat – cyberwarfare from China. I’m concerned. The newspapers are carrying prominent, lengthy articles about Chinese hackers (“cyberwarriors”), some from the People’s Liberation Army, attacking computer networks of British and German government departments. These latest disclosures come after reports that the Chinese military had hacked into the Pentagon military computer network in June.

Predictably the Chinese authorities have been quick to deny all the allegations. Equally predictably, these denials are swiftly dismissed in the news reports. Coverage by Clifford Coonan, in a double page spread in the Independent of 6 September 2007, is typical. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman’s comments (“China and the US are now devoted to constructive relations and co-operation…”) are buried in paragraph 25. Immediately afterwards, undaunted, Coonan returns to his main theme of China’s growing cyberwarfare threat. “In 2003, a cyber espionage ring code-named Titan Rain by US investigators was tracked to Guangdong province after a network break-in at Lockheed Martin.”

Equally worrying is the way in which so many of these features are dominated by anonymous sources. We know, for instance, how anonymous “intelligence”, “Whitehall”, “defence ministry” sources were used to promote the lies about those imaginary Weapons of Mass Destruction in the lead-up to the criminal US/UK assault on Iraq in 2003 and so have become highly suspicious whenever they reappear. But take a look at Coonan’s double-page spread. In 32 paragraphs, there is not one named Western source. Instead, we have authoritative statements from sources such as “one security expert who did not wish to be named”, an “analyst”, “computer security experts”, “a security analyst” and speculating “webheads”.

Michael Evans, Defence Editor, in The Times of 6 September, under the headline “China ‘tops list’ of cyber-hackers seeking UK government secrets”, quotes simply “Whitehall” sources. And he reports: “MI5 has told the Government that at least 20 foreign intelligence services were operating some degree against British interests and that China and Russia were of greatest concern.”

The previous day, Bernhard Warner, former Reuters’ internet correspondent, built a 10-paragraph feature in The Times on “the ongoing digital struggle between China and the West” around quotes from a single source, Roberto Preatoni. But take a look at Wikipedia on Mr Preatoni. In a brief entry, he is described, strangely, as “class 1967” and co-author “with a mysterious person going by the handle of Evil Angelica (named after the infamous web-defacer) of the hacker comics Hero-Z”. Certainly Wikipedia needs to be always handled critically – but surely there are more authoritative sources available on such a serious issue?

A Guardian feature on China’s “informationised army” by Ed Pilkington and Bobbie Johnson, on 5 September, relies in its opening paragraphs on reports in the Financial Times, Der Spiegel and on un-named “internet security experts”. Quotes towards the end come from Sami Saydjari, “who worked as a Pentagon cyber expert for 13 years and now runs a private company, Cyber Defence Agency” and Jody Westby, of “CyLab based at Carnegie Mellon University”. But these sources don’t supply any new information drawn from any original research; they merely rhetorically support the underlying theme of the feature.

A report in the Daily Mail of 5 September similarly relies almost entirely on anonymous sources. Just one named source, Alex Neill, “an expert on the Chinese military and head of the Asia Security Programme at the Royal United Services Institute” is quoted as saying cyberattacks had been emanating from China for four years. The same source is quoted in Richard Norton-Taylor’s front page splash on “Titan Rain” in the same day’s Guardian.
So, folks, if these “cyberterrorist” scare stories proliferate, let’s see if anonymous (and hence rather dodgy) quotes continue to dominate the coverage. Are the sources transmitting information – or disinformation?

  • Richard Keeble has just co-edited, with Sarah Maltby, Communicating War: Memory, Media and Military (Arima), a collection of essays on the media’s handling of war and terrorism. And with Sharon Wheeler he has also just co-edited The Journalistic Imagination: Literary Journalists from Defoe to Capote and Carter (Routledge).