Archive for journalism

All the pieces matter

Posted in Climbing with tags , , , on October 4, 2011 by bridbeast

Who needs coaches?

Quite a lot of us who are engaged in complex, hard-to-learn, hard-to-perfect endeavours, at least according to this interesting article by surgeon-author Atul Gawande, in the latest New Yorker. The author explores the idea of coaching in his own profession by asking an accomplished retired surgeon to sit in and observe his operations. He learns more in a few hours than he has in the past five years of plateauing skills.

This passage struck me:

“In sports, coaches focus on mechanics, conditioning, and strategy, and have ways to break each of those down, in turn. The U.C.L.A. basketball coach John Wooden, at the first squad meeting each season, even had his players practice putting their socks on. He demonstrated just how to do it: he carefully rolled each sock over his toes, up his foot, around the heel, and pulled it up snug, then went back to his toes and smoothed out the material along the sock’s length, making sure there were no wrinkles or creases. He had two purposes in doing this. First, wrinkles cause blisters. Blisters cost games. Second, he wanted his players to learn how crucial seemingly trivial details could be. “Details create success” was the creed of a coach who won ten N.C.A.A. men’s basketball championships.”

In a little moment of serendipity, just a day before I read a very similar thing by Steve House about his alpinism:

“Let there be no doubt that for every ascent listed above, there were a thousand details that fell into place, like knowing how to dry my gloves, what sock combination worked, and (usually) a high pressure that held. It is experience with those details that allows some to ascend to their potential, while the rest get stopped by blisters and bad timing.”

It’s the socks and blisters again!

It made me think to climbing with relative beginners and how few of them bother to clean their shoes before stepping onto the rock. It also made me wonder what I’m missing in my own climbing, and what a coach could advise. What are the new little details I need to know? Because all the pieces matter


9/11 revisited

Posted in current affairs, Journalism with tags , , on September 11, 2011 by bridbeast

From the Guardian, Mon 17 Sept 2001:

As American Airlines flight 11 ploughed into the World Trade Centre, I was sitting with a group of young Taliban in Jalalabad, eastern Afghanistan. I had just arrived on a tourist visa and was thoroughly enjoying myself. It was 5.30pm and we were watching the local gymnastics club practise beside the Kabul river. In the light of the setting sun, the boys rehearsed their flips and rolls, a thin mat their only piece of equipment.

Afterwards the Taliban lads took me to a stall, bought me some chips and Coke, and bombarded me with questions. Which country was I from? Why was I in Afghanistan? Could I help them get an English visa? Like most Afghans, they initially appeared stern and forbidding, but when I greeted them and held out my hand they melted into smiles.

On Wednesday morning I took a taxi to Kabul, still completely unaware of events in New York and Washington. We were pulled over at the first checkpoint outside Jalalabad by a group of black-turbaned Taliban sporting AK47s and batons. I opened my bum bag but the guard wasn’t interested in seeing my passport or visa. He reached in and pulled out a couple of “un-Islamic” family photos, examined them carefully, smiled and put them back.

The driver wasn’t so lucky. The Taliban found an illegal music cassette in the glove box and hauled him out, whacked him around the head and took him away for questioning. They politely apologised to me for the delay and found me another taxi. Judging by the streams of tape flying from a lamp-post, it was business as usual.

It was a dusty and incredibly bumpy journey to Kabul, along roads whose tarmac had been destroyed by tank treads and missile attacks. We passed ruined villages, abandoned Soviet tanks and fenced-off areas awaiting the mine clearance teams. But among the relics of carnage there were moments of rare beauty. Nomads led camel trains and flocks of goats across the desert. Unveiled girls in bright pink tunics gathered water from a turquoise river and balanced bundles on their heads while eagles soared above.

I first heard the news in a Kabul hotel from Gulbudin, a middle-aged Afghan with a short-wave radio. “Do you know someone has flown an aeroplane into the World Trade Centre in America?” This was so preposterous that I didn’t take him seriously, so I headed out to explore the city and see if anyone could confirm his story.

In the handicraft shops of Chicken Street, the desperate shopkeepers were more interested in selling me jewellery and carpets. But, when pressed, one told me: “Terrorists have destroyed a big business building in America. We saw it on the dish. Yes, we have television, it’s easy to hide.”

I went to a restaurant for dinner and the atmosphere was more sombre. Three old men were listening intently to the BBC World Service news in Pashto. The only words I could understand were “Osama bin Laden” and “Taliban”, and it began to dawn on me. I was in the worst country in the world to be a westerner.

Back at the hotel, I tried to find Gulbudin but was gently marched upstairs by a young Talib. My paranoia was working overtime, but he just sat me down, gave me a cup of tea and tried to convert me to Islam before asking me, with real bemusement in his voice, why the west hate the Taliban. Once I escaped his passionate sermons, I found Gulbudin and his radio, and finally heard the news in full and shocking detail.

“Don’t worry,” said Gulbudin. “You are safe here. You are a guest in our country and we Afghans will do nothing to harm you.” Nevertheless, on Thursday morning I went to the Red Cross office, where Mario, the information officer, told me to get out immediately. All the other aid workers had already left Kabul and there was a real risk that the border would close. “In a city centre hotel you are vulnerable to missile attack, but also the Taliban will know where you are in case they carry out reprisals,” Mario said. In 1998, after the cruise missile raids, a UN worker was shot. There was no decision to make.

I walked back through a bustling Kabul, sad that I had to leave this ruined yet vibrant city. The bazaar was thronged with people buying half-rotten vegetables and cheap imported goods. On a stall selling western castoffs was a T-shirt advertising McDonald’s and another declaring “Nothing ever changes”.

“It is time for you to leave,” Gulbudin said when I met him at the hotel. He found me a taxi and told the driver to take me to the border as quickly as possible. “Don’t worry about the Taliban; they are scared of an American attack and won’t bother you. Now I will go to my village, where it will be quieter.” He gave me a hug and I got into the taxi.

Driving through the brown, bombed-out suburbs, I saw a tank belching out dirty fumes, heading towards the city centre, followed a little later by a pick-up truck carrying Taliban troops and their shoulder-held grenade launchers.

I had a nervous wait at the first checkpoint outside Kabul as my driver went inside to get permission to continue. I looked past the children selling cups of water towards a group of Taliban sitting and fiddling with their Kalashnikovs and wondered if I was about to be taken hostage and used as a human shield. The driver returned with a few crumpled slips of paper that he handed to the guard, and we were off.

For five uneventful hours we drove past the results of the last superpower bombardment, but I didn’t relax until we reached the border at Torkham. I pushed through the crowds of Afghans, holding my passport above my head to alert the Pakistani border police, who were lashing out at the crowd with pieces of plastic tubing. They shoved an old woman out of the way, grabbed me by the arm and pulled me back into the safety of Pakistan.



Posted in current affairs, Journalism with tags , on July 10, 2011 by bridbeast

I’ve spent today cleaning and hanging out at home rather than doing anything that requires much effort, physical or intellectual. So I haven’t been following the news much, other than to hear now it turns out that an internal NI memo has turned up which indicates that, oh what a surprise, executives at the company knew phone hacking was more widespread than they let on, and that they’d paid police for stories.

I thought about the cowardice of politicians who for years have refused to stand up to Murdoch, as a group, prefering short term tactical gain over their opponents to uniting in a long-term goal of reducing the power of one company. Blair had three meetings with Murdoch in the ten days before the Iraq war started, but ignored a million people marching in London.

Anyhow I was put in mind of something by the historian Tony Judt, and found the full quote here:

“Courage is always missing in politicians. It is like saying basketball players aren’t normally short. It isn’t a useful attribute. To be morally courageous is to say something different, which reduces your chances of winning an election. Courage is in a funny way more common in an old-fashioned sort of enlightened dictatorship than it is in a democracy. However, there is another factor. My generation has been catastrophic. I was born in 1948 so I am more or less the same age as George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Gerhard Schröder, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – a pretty crappy generation, when you come to think of it, and many names could be added. It is a generation that grew up in the 1960s in Western Europe or in America, in a world of no hard choices, neither economic nor political. There were no wars they had to fight. They did not have to fight in the Vietnam War. They grew up believing that no matter what choice they made, there would be no disastrous consequences. The result is that whatever the differences of appearance, style and personality, these are people for whom making an unpopular choice is very hard.

“Someone once said: ‘But Blair’s choice to go to war in Iraq was unpopular with the majority of the population.’ I agree. But what Blair was doing was going for a different kind of popularity – he wanted to show his strength. To do this he had to do something unpopular, yet something that cost him nothing. Doing something unpopular that may cost you your job is much harder.”

(My italics.)

News of the World

Posted in Journalism with tags on July 7, 2011 by bridbeast

The phone hacking scandal emanating from the News of the World really is incredible. There are so many angles to the story that I can’t really grasp it all yet.

To me though, one thing stands out. It’s the time, in 2003, when Rebekah Brooks gave evidence to the Commons Select Committee. She admitted the paper paid police for information. That’s illegal. That’s corrupt. And what’s more – no one called her out on it (as far as I understand).

The police didn’t follow it up. MPs didn’t follow it up (or obviously not vigorously enough). And she felt confident enough to say it on camera in the Commons.

At least someone is paying for this, if not the right people. I feel sorry for the decent reporters on the paper looking at losing their jobs. But after Iraq, and the financial crisis, in which no senior people have lost their jobs, I think there might be a mood for revenge amongst ordinary people. I hope so!

Investigative journalism masterclass

Posted in Journalism with tags , , on May 16, 2011 by bridbeast

I spent the weekend on a Guardian Masterclass on investigative journalism, run  by Paul Lewis and Heather Brooke.

Probably the most interesting thing for me was seeing how Paul did the investigations behind his biggest stories, such as the Ian Tomlinson case and the death of Jimmy Mubenga, who was allegedly asphyxiated by security guards on a plane as he was being deported to Angola.

Twitter was key to finding witnesses and evidence in both cases. Something I didn’t realise the Guardian did was to write “teaser” stories which, with some clever wording, would alert anyone searching for the story that they were trying to investigate it further. Plenty of tweeting with the right hashtag was very effective at getting witnesses – in the Mubenga case an oil worker saw it whilst on an oil rig off the Angolan coast. Paul reckoned that both these stories would have been impossible to do before 2008 and the rise of crowd sourcing, mainly through Twitter.

Unlike old fashioned investigative journalism, with its slightly furtive methods, this kind of crowd sourced story was investigation in the open, in which everyone can see what the reporter was doing – other hacks, press officers, hostile officials as well as potential sources.

The story of West Midlands police attempting to ring Muslim areas with cameras was interesting too. A lot of the investigation hinged around a forensic reading of the press release and sniffing out things that looked fishy. After that it was simply a case of asking the right questions to the right people:
Where did the money come from?
What’s it for?
Where in the Home Office is giving you the money?
What part of ACPO does the money come from?

Basic stuff, but allied with imagination and tenacity it got a front page story and the cameras were removed.

Heather did a good class on using Freedom of Information requests, looking at how to query officials who refuse to give information when really they should.

On Sunday afternoon we had a session from James Ball who let us into the secrets computer security, encrypted email and chat, and interrogating data sets. He had worked with the WikiLeaks team on the Iraq war logs, turning the mass of data obtained from the US military into stories. Again, lots of complex ideas turning on asking basic journalistic questions.