BASETRACK Live

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There are many different ways of telling a story. And while I may not just write for newspapers any more, my own way of doing it has changed little during my career. The platforms may evolve but I still use the same words. One of the exciting things about being in New York is to see all the different ways in which it can be done. So I’ll try to get to Brooklyn Academy of Music next month for this production of BASETRACK Live.

How to deal with Isis murder videos

Dealing with propaganda produced by  Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) is a major headache for any newsroom. If a hostage is beheaded then that’s a news story. It cannot be ignored. But Isis is not merely murdering Westerners: It has built an entire strategy around its made-for-TV killings.

The MO is clear. With each one it tries to make the process resemble some sort of judicial exercise. The charges are laid out against Obama and Cameron in the first video, when the next victim is revealed. A week, 10 days, a fortnight later and the judgement is delivered and punishment imposed.

As this thoughtful piece, by Lina Khatib, points out, the recent slew of family appeals for compassion has made no impact…

The beheading of Alan Henning on the eve of the Eid al-Adha holiday, despite a widespread campaign emphasising his respect for Islam, should be a wake-up call to those who assume that IS might be swayed by calls for compassion.

A more fruitful approach may be to call for defiance, undermining the claims for legitimacy by Isis.

But what then for the media? How best to handle what appears not to be a murder campaign so much as a propaganda campaign? The piece goes on to call on the media essentially to black out coverage.

Only when IS begins to see that hostage-taking is no longer an effective political and propaganda tool will the current wave of beheadings begin to wane.

Maybe. But no serious news organisation can ignore a murder. And I suspect the wave of beheadings will end only when they run out of victims.

Ebola: Freelancers on the front-line

First the good news. It appears that Ashoka Mukpo, the journalist who contracted Ebola, is on the mend. With the sort of understatement that proves he has British blood, he tweets…

However, a question is floating around about who will pay his health care costs – likely to be of the order of some hundreds of thousands of dollars. His friends have set up a crowdfunding page:

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The target is $500,000 and it’s a worthy cause. But does this mean that Mr Mukpo’s clients – notably NBC News and Vice – are reluctant to pay his medical costs and his longer-term rehabilitation?

There is a response in this AP piece, saying:

NBC and the VICE Media Group say they’re coordinating to assist in paying for his medical care. NBC says it wants a solution where he and his family won’t have to pay anything.

Well, NBC, there’s an obvious solution: Get out your sodding chequebook. After everything freelancers have been through in Syria and the gains made, it seems we are back to square one.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe so long as the money is raised and Mr Mukpo makes a full recovery everything is OK.

But it seems a pretty poor state of affairs for major news organisations to use freelancers to provide front-line coverage and then work out ways to avoid footing the bill. They wouldn’t do that for a staffer. And it risks making them look as if they are shirking their responsibilities

Beard power

Obviously I’d never compare Roy Keane with the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. No, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed would probably feel some remorse over that tackle on Alf Inge-Haland. But, well I couldn’t help but think of the man currently held at Guantanamo Bay when I saw those pics of Keane without his beard….

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Roy Keane before and after shaving off his beard

I mean, maybe I just lived in Pakistan too long, but it’s hard not to think that each loses a little of their ferocity, power and status without a fully furred chin. Each goes from plotting mastermind to, well, just an old man.

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Khalid Sheikh Mohammed before and after shaving off his beard

How made-for-media executions pile pressure on Obama

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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

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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.