How made-for-media executions pile pressure on Obama


Dealing with terrorist propaganda is never easy for journalists. Any telling of the story has to include both sides. But only up to point. Bold, grandiose of victory, progress or purity should be met with the usual reasonable scepticism. No journalist wants to end up acting as a PR assistant to thugs and killers.

The release last month of the Islamic State video showing the execution of James Foley prompted a degree of soul searching among hacks. Some said even the act of viewing it was to give the thugs a victory, generating the horror and revulsion they sought to propagate – much less actually broadcasting the video itself. Twitter began deactivating accounts of those who spread particularly gruesome images (prompting a debate about internet freedom).

This time around some of the lessons have been learned. The video and its images seem to have been rather more difficult to find. Twitter users have thought twice before spreading them, stemming the flow of fear.

However, this morning the New York Daily News (roundly criticised for its use of graphic imagery on its front page last time) has blundered into an elephant trap set by the Islamic State’s bloodied propagandists. Its front page seems to place the blame for Steven Sotloff’s death with Barack Obama and his “dithering” over Syria.

Isn’t this exactly what the terrorists want, to pile pressure on the US to force it into another war in a Muslim land – the single most potent recruiting agent that the Islamic State has in its arsenal?

On this occasion Mr Obama’s reluctance to race into a strategy – his insistence on not doing “stupid s***” as the unofficial motto has it – might well be the best, most rational response.

I have written more on unpacking the messages in this latest video for Al-Jazeera America.

Please Inform Allah


Frequent readers of this blog will know that I wrote about PIA, Pakistan’s national airline, some weeks ago in The Sunday Telegraph. Fresh moves are afoot to bring it into the 21st century by ending the bleeding of cash, updating the fleet and rationalising its bloated workforce. I wish it the very best.

You’ll also perhaps know that almost alone among the foreign correspondents in Islamabad I insisted on using PIA as much as possible. I frequently flew back and forth to London on its 777s. The timings are perfect. Much more civilised than an early hours departure and then a layover in some shiny Gulf hub where passengers are forced to waste time browsing some of the most pointless shops I have ever seen.

Anyway, I turned that piece into a more personalised account for BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent. You can listen to it here…

Ferguson: Who’s who?

Fascinating piece on how the photographers of the St Louis Post-Dispatch are dealing with the biggest story on their patch in years. It’s well worth a read. And I particularly like a comment by a Mr Forbes, one of the paper’s photographers, who gets to the nub of the problem with coverage of the past couple of nights….

Of course, with Ferguson in papers and on sites across the nation and around the world, a new problem has emerged. “There are so many more press people now,” says Forbes. “Any time a protester raises his voice, there are 30 guys getting around him to take his picture. It’s getting really ridiculous, to the point that the press is actually more of a problem.”

The number of demonstrators has dwindled in the past couple of nights – after dark in particular. But you wouldn’t know it from some of the pics or video. It means the tiny number of people intent on trouble get a disproportionate amount of coverage. Which is a shame. 

It also raises a real problem for the police, who have to work out who’s who. And there’s a very fine line between a lot of the citizen journalists out there and the demonstrators. I’m not surprised the police have struggled to make the right call. They’re doing a tough job in difficult circumstances.

Why Ferguson?

After decades of relative calm and stability, the apartments have become a tinderbox for crime. Canfield Green Apartments and the nearby Oakmont and Northwinds complexes are a study of the slow encroachment of poverty and social distress into what had been suburban escapes.

Good piece in The St Louis Post Dispatch about why Ferguson…

Whatever you think about intervention, there’s no alternative in Iraq. Today. This minute

I was in Benghazi  on the morning when Gadaffi troops stormed its streets in 2011. Shells bracketed through the city, almost street by street . The place was in fear, aware that as the cradle of the revolution its residents would not be spared. Mosques boomed “Allahu Akhbar” from their minarets – part warning, part farewell.

All day I stood with civilians staring at the sky, wondering when Nato planes would arrive to save the city.

They arrived day later, pulverising Gaddafi’s war machine as it slept just outside Benghazi.

These past weeks have brought a string of questions about whether the intervention in Libya was the right thing to do. The country is in chaos. British diplomats have followed their American and French counterparts home. Was it worth it, cry the non-interventionists. Aren’t we responsible for creating the vacuum now filled by militias intent on doing their worst?

Let’s leave aside the questions about Gaddafi’s fear-fuelled murder. We’ve been over that ground already.

Instead the situation unfolding in Iraq, where forces of the Islamic State are threatening a genocide of religious minorities, shows us that whatever we might think of the earlier invasion of the country, the mayhem in Libya, or the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, we cannot stand by and let innocent men, women and children die. Just as in Benghazi, so northern Iraq today.

It is all very well for the anti-interventionists to tell us in a decade’s time that we got it all wrong. The simple fact is that today – right now, this minute, as thousands of people huddle on a mountainside wondering what their fate will be – they have no alternative plan.

Insider attacks and the Taliban

It is still unclear what happened at the Afghan National Defence University on Tuesday. What we do know is that a man in Afghan army uniform opened fire killing Maj Gen Harold Greene, the highest ranking US officer killed overseas since Vietnam, and wounding many more. Inevitably those with an axe to grind have seized on the episode to show how Barack Obama is getting it wrong…


“The Taliban’s recent campaign of high-profile attacks is calculated to accompany a global PR strategy highlighting the fact that U.S. and coalition forces will soon be leaving Afghanistan and abandoning its weak and ineffective government. The Taliban wants everyone to know it will soon dominate all aspects of life in Afghanistan once again,” House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement.

“I have told the president privately and publicly that my biggest concern is that America will end its mission in Afghanistan just short of the goal line. … So let me reiterate: if the president decides to re-think his strategy, including withdrawals, deadlines, and policy restraints, particularly on certain associated terrorist networks, he will have my support.”

There’s plenty more in this vein. But as I write here, such insider attacks are rarely a reflection of Taliban strength – although they do suggest that building trust with Afghan forces remains a problem.

Basic misperceptions about polio

Very useful preliminary study from the Harvard School of Public Health on attitudes to polio and its vaccine in Nigeria and Pakistan. Tends to suggest some very basic messages are not getting through.

In Pakistan and Nigeria, Parents’ Misperceptions Could Erode Demand in Future

Although parental demand has reached very high levels, poll results suggest there are some misperceptions about polio and OPV that could erode demand in the future, if not addressed. For example, a sizable share of parents in Borno (37%) as well as parents in lower-conflict areas of Nigeria (24%) and Pakistan (30%) believe that the paralysis from polio would be curable if their child got sick. Further, across both countries, between a fifth and a third of parents were not aware that OPV must be taken every time it is offered to maximize protection against the disease (37% in FATA, 19% in lower-conflict areas of Pakistan, 35% in Borno, and 29% in lower-conflict areas of Nigeria).

The PDF is here