Muscat Confidential

21 12 2009

Oman used to be a well kept secret.

Described as the ‘jewel of the Gulf’, a vibrant, beautiful country, Oman developed rapidly thanks to its vast oil supplies. Now it is making use of the many tourist opportunities available to it. Beautiful hotels have appeared along its shorelines and suddenly more people are visiting this special place.

However a brief encounter with a country only reveals the surface of a place.

Oman does not suffer from social poverty, high crime levels or other social problems such as drugs, homelessness or youth delinquency.

At least not outwardly.

Whilst it is true that Oman appears a safe country, it is also true that there are strict restrictions on what the Omani press is able to report.

The Telecommunication Act Article 61(3) makes it a criminal offence (punishable by jail time and/or fines) to publish anything “contrary to public order and common morals”. It has also been deemed illegal by the courts to criticise in print Government officials under (again, criminal not civil) general anti-defamation laws.

Surely any country would appear safe if its crime were not reported.

Everyone is aware of crime in the UK because of the abundance of stories in the UK press exposing it.

This attracts a different sort of criticism, such as accusations that the press is guilty of negative sensationalism in a shameless bid to sell content. Regardless, the UK press operates without restraints.

This freedom is unfortunately lacking in Oman’s press.

Bloggers in Oman’s community are beginning to challenge this. Anonymous and free from the censorship which stifles official news sources, these bloggers are bringing important issues to the public’s attention.

Muscat Confidential, The Muscatis and myitlawyer are blogs that discuss, amongst other things, rising corruption in the country.

These blogs are proof of how citizen journalism is helping to defeat efforts by authorities to control press freedom.

Lets now hope that Omantel, the country’s only current internet provider, does not block these sites.

If so, let other blogs be made to fill their place.


Humanist Adverts Go Up In Cardiff

11 12 2009

The British Humanist Association has put up four large advertisements in Cardiff, London, Belfast and Edinburgh. The latest addition to the advertising battle between Christian and Humanist organisations bears the slogan: ‘Please Don’t Label Me. Let me grow up and choose for myself.’

For more informattion and images of the billboards visit:

The poster is located at 42 Merthyr Road in Cardiff: 

It features a child appearing against a backdrop of ‘shadowy’ descriptions such as Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh.  These are mixed together with other labels such as Marxist, Anarchist, Socialist, Libertarian or Humanist.

Hear what members of the public think about the advert:

Richard Dawson, Vice President of the British Humanist Association, says:

 ‘We urgently need to raise consciousness on this issue. Nobody would seriously describe a tiny child as a “Marxist child” or an “Anarchist child” or a Post-modernist child”. Yet children are routinely labelled with the religion of their parents. We need to encourage people to think carefully before labelling any child too young to know their own opinions and our adverts will help to do that.’  

RDFRS is the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Research and Science.

Blakeley Nixon is the Cardiff Humanist representative. Listen to his definition of what Humanism is: 

The BHA is the national charity representing and supporting the non-religious and promoting Humanism. It campaigns for inclusive schools with no religious admissions policies and balanced teaching about different beliefs and values. It has launched a fundraising campaign to coincide with the unveiling of the billboards which will raise money for the campaigns to phase out state funded ‘faith schools’.

Under the EHRC and Human Rights Act it is stated that all people, children and adults, have the right to ‘freedom of religion and belief’. It also states that the parent has the right to have their children educated in conformity with their beliefs. However Humanists believe this right is meant to protect people from state conformity and does not mean that the state needs to provide that education.

Humanists feel that by telling children they belong to a specific religion they believe there is something intrinsically different about other children and this is a barrier to interpersonal and social cohesion, as well as to mutual understanding.

Listen to a clip of Blakely Nixon putting forward the Humanist argument against faith schools:

The latest campaign follows a 14o,ooo pound aetheist advertising campaign on British buses and the London Underground which was launched in January. Slogans on the buses read: ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’

Ariane Sherine, the original creator of the bus campaign, said: ‘I hope this poster will encourage the government, media and general public to see children as individuals, free to make their own choices, and accord them the liberty and respect they deserve.’

The bus campaign was launched in October 2008 and aimed to raise just 5,500 pounds. Within four days it had raised 100,000 pounds in individual donations from the general public and went on to raise over 153,523 pounds, meaning it surpassed its original target by 2791%.

 This campaign prompted outrage and retaliatory campaign from Christian groups.   The 1990 Broadcasting Act made broadcast advertising on religious themes possible. The main poster being used in the latest campaign is a bus shelter nativity painting by the artist Andrew Gadd and it bears the slogan: ‘Christmas starts with Christ: Church 25/12’.

Lacking in the size of budget which backs the British Humanist Association, churches are encouraged to buy their own 105 pound bus advertising. People are also  encouraged to launch their own free campaign through local notice boards, shop and house windows, church magazines and newsletters or printing out posters from the website.

Anna Moran is the press officer for the Archbishop of the Church of Wales. She discusses objections to the Humanist adverts:

Whilst Humanists say they are campaigning for children to be seen as individuals, free to make their own choices, religious organisations argue that such campaigns are in themselves a contradiction. An anonymous Christian blogger writes:

‘It would seem that the varied and expansive indoctrination of children within the media, education and commercialist systems are fine, as long as it has no positive reference to God. Not all indoctrination is equal it would seem, within the Humanist world view.’

It seems that this, like many arguments regarding religion, is a case were the two sides will not reach an agreement. As the subject continues to incite such passion, it is likely that this struggle will remain in the public sphere for all to see.

Paid Content

2 12 2009

Rob Andrews from Paid Content was our latest guest speaker. His advice to us was ‘always attribute, always link to.’

Rob works from home with his laptop and video camera. He is a self-sufficient journalist and he says that this is increasingly the way that journalism is going.

In regards to paid content, apparently online advertising is more efficient than traditional means as it allows people to advertise alongside key words. This means they can easily access their target audience.

The recession has been a double-hit for media institutions as not only have they suffered in terms of loss of advertising revenue, but competition is now also tougher in terms of getting people to buy their content.

Online content is obviously the biggest challenge facing media organisations. The amount of free content now available on the web means that more readers are accessing their news in this way and media organisations lose yet more money.

Rupert Murdoch has long been demanding pay walls on content from media organisations within his NewsCorp group. He accuses search engines such as Google and of stealing. Actually, he refers to them as ‘content kleptomaniacs’.

Murdoch had previously agreed a deal with Bing so that his NewsCorp content would be exclusively available to them. The purpose of this was really to vent his anger at Google and ‘hurt’ them to the worst of his ability.

It seems though that Murdoch may have struck a swift blow. The latest news in this now lengthy saga is that Google have responded by making new moves to allow publishers to limit free news access.

This means that after a Google user has clicked through to more than five articles on the website of a publisher using First Click Free in a day, they may start to see a registration page.

This will allow publishers to focus on potential subscribers who are accessing their content on a regular basis.

Josh Cohen, Google senior business product manager says: ‘whether you’re offering your content for free or selling it, it’s crucial that people find it. Google can help with that.’

Whether or not these two concepts can be reconciled is something that remains to be seen.


28 11 2009

Listening to BBC World Service this morning there was a feature about StoryCorps, a new project in America where people are encouraged to volunteer to have a conversation between them and a loved one recorded. 

The project has been immensely successful, there have been conversations recorded in every American state and 99% of people have agreed to allow their conversations to be archived in library records, a far far higher figure than was originally estimated. The results of these conversation have been touching and often poignant. The ‘best’ ones are broadcast on American National Public Radio high profile morning slot every week and have pulled in incredibly high listening figures.

The orchestrators of the project must not be able to believe their luck. Clearly they had an idea of their objectives and what they would like to secure from StoryCorps, but really with such an endeavour its success depends on the people who contribute to it. It seems that the organisers may have underestimated the desire many people have to tell their own story and for it to be remembered.

There was some discussion on BBC World Service about whether such a programme could succeed in the UK. The argument was put forward that such openness is perhaps unique to American society and may strike other Countries as somewhat sentimental.  This is a fair argument and has been proven true by other American initiatives.

StoryCorps founder Dave Isay defended accusations of intentional emotivity and said we can make stories powerful in the media and we don’t have to apologise for it. In this case though its the stories that are powerful in themselves and the media input can in someways detract from that. The absence of music allows the words to speak for themselves.

One story which stays in my memory is that of John Vigiano , a former firefighter whose two sons, a fireman and a policeman, died in the September 11th bombings.

Perhaps there should be a UK version of StoryCorps.  If journalism is about bringing stories to the world then this is it at its best.

Jedward have left the stage

24 11 2009

So it has finally happened, the indestructible twin duo have been voted off the X-Factor.

There was a tense moment beforehand when it looked like it might not be so.  I have previously stated my long standing devotion to X-Factor competitor Olly Murs, so emotions were running high when he found himself in the bottom two alongside the two-headed machine.

For the sake of professional journalism I will try to remain impartial.  

Simon of course chose Olly. The PR machine was suddenly not such an issue when faced with losing one of his own acts and the ever growing reality that if the twins were to win he would be stuck with them.

Cheryl also went down the path of reason, Olly, Louis Walsh unsurprisingly did not, Jedward supporter to the end, and so the final decision was left up to Danni. Again.

Danni irritated me thoroughly on Sunday night. Not only did the decision seem a blaringly obvious one to me but also I felt she was enjoying the attention far too much.  

However, her question which she put to the audience does merit a certain amount of attention: ‘Is this a singing competition?’

Well, In my mind yes, it is. But perhaps I am mistaken. In fact no-one answered her question and perhaps none of the judges nor the audience really know.

But are the music charts ever really about a singing competition? I already blogged about the beautiful and immensely likely Cheryl Cole and her domination of the charts. Her song ‘Fight for this love’ is really catchy, and yes I like it, but she is a perfect example of how other factors can indeed be more important than singing ability.

The X-Factor is simply a reflection of the audience and its changing demands. Rather than shouting at Simon and the twins then, perhaps my frustration should be directed towards our society’s merit system.   

We have Jordan, we have footballers and their girlfriends and now we have Jedward.

In the end the best wiggly hipped man did win. Not only can Olly sing, he is an excellent entertainer.

So my faith has been restored.

A bit.

Who are the real news dinosaurs?

19 11 2009

Joanna Geary, the web designer editor at the Times newspaper, came in to talk to us today about how she got her job. Firstly she admitted that her job title didn’t really mean anything. When she was offered the job she was also told that she could basically make of it what she wanted. This tends to be the reaction of many towards the more technically minded. When we think of this specific genre of technophobes in newsrooms, thoughts normally lead to what Joanna jokingly referred to as ‘the dinosaurs’ – those men of a ‘certain age’ who harp on about the good old days of news.

However Joanna broke those stereotypes today. A student asked her if she faced alot of resistance and even opposition from journalists who were wary about entering a more digital newsroom. She answered yes, but also explained that she was reluctant to generalise. Her hesitation was because she found that many of ‘the dinosaurs’ were often excited about live chats and other features of online journalism because it allows them to interact with people in a way that they might not have done since before the advance of computers. The real bombshell in her talk was what came next.

She said that the group which she found most difficult to persuade to partake in modern media was often students who have just left MA courses. Apparently these young headstrong things have such firm ideas of what journalism is that they are not open to other suggestions.  Considering her audience at the time, a group of around 70 of us all on postgraduate journalism courses, her words hit a nerve.  But could this be true?

We are the generation of tweeters and social networking. Hell, our generation basically invented facebook!  We are bombarded with messages about how the digital revolution is the future of journalism, but in the long practised art of taking notes and regurgitating, how much are we actually taking in? Maybe we are just nodding our heads but really holding onto those ideals of the old school newsroom that we always wanted to work in. Maybe, like Joanna, we all still hanker over those images of Clark Kent and Lois Lane making their print papers at the Daily Planet. 

So, in the future when we talk about ‘the dinosaurs’ maybe we should pause, take a look at ourselves, and make sure that we’re not baby ones in the making.

From Typewriter to Twitter

13 11 2009

The other day we had a lecture from Rory Cellan-Jones who is the technology correspondent for the BBC.

He had rushed over from London to talk to us and managed to pass on as much advice as he could in an hour. Much of what he said was re-enforcing what has been the recurrent theme of many of our lectures – that journalism is experiencing a evolution/revolution and as wannabe journalists we should be confident with the technology behind this digital explosion or face finding that we are not really of much use to any news organisation.

Rory thankfully expressed this with much more enthusiasm and excitement than the above statement. He also warned us to pay little attention to journalists who hark on about the good old days, saying that actually, perhaps unsurprisingly, the quality of television journalism is much higher than it was in the 80s.

We discussed how audiences have changed over the past twenty years, becoming more fragmented and interactive, and how all journalists need a new range of news skills to cater for this. The gap between journalists and crafts people is lessening as journalists are expected to know how to record and edit their own material.

Like Rory I agree that these changes both develop and enhance traditional journalism.

Journalism is about telling stories, true stories. Video footage and graphics, amongst other things, are all a way for the audience to experience the story more directly. Mark Brayne, a former reporter for Reuters and the BBC, told us today that ‘as a journalist you are the screen between the story and the audience’. Technology and the modern working newsroom help to keep that screen as clear as possible so that the audience can get as close to the story as possible.