Documenting refugees in the 21st century

Eva Menger, freelance copywriter and MA Contemporary Literature & Culture student, reports on Birkbeck’s recent Documenting Refugees event, which combined Kate Stanworth’s photography exhibition Where We Are Now with a screening of Orban Wallace’s documentary Another News Story.

Kate Stanworth’s photo of Salma, who travelled from Syria to Germany.

Wednesday 20 June marked World Refugee Day, an event through which the UN seeks to show governments the importance of collaboration as a means to accommodate forced migrants all over the world. With the global number of refugees being at an all-time high, this year stood for commemorating their strength, courage and perseverance. In light of this message, Birkbeck lecturer Agnes Woolley hosted ‘Documenting Refugees’, a thoughtful evening discussing the way in which refugees are represented both in the arts and media.

The event combined Kate Stanworth’s photography exhibition Where We Are Now with a screening of Orban Wallace’s documentary Another News Story, both of which reveal an intimate portrayal of refugees and their stories. For Stanworth, the focus lies on personal narratives and the psychological survival techniques used by refugees during the most difficult times. In addition, her portraits reveal how reaching the final destination (typically Germany or the UK) is still very much the beginning of the long journey forced immigrants have got ahead of them.

A similar idea is conveyed in Another News Story, where Wallace and his team follow both the refugees and journalists portraying them on their challenging journey across Europe. While the documentary offers an excellent balance of mixed narratives, the character that stands out most is Syrian mother Mahasen Nassif. Not only is her excellent English, positivity and strength while travelling alone completely overwhelming; her story also shows how getting to Germany is not where the refugee experience ends. When, in the panel discussion afterwards, director Wallace is asked about her he admits that she is finding it challenging to be living a slow-moving life in a remote town in Germany, endlessly waiting for documentation. A side of the story we hear a lot less often.

What is also special about the documentary is that it was shot without any kind of plan, with the main characters being simply those they kept running into. Finding a repertoire of narratives was therefore an entirely natural process, Wallace explains. And ultimately this has led to a uniquely nuanced documentation of a phenomenon that is predominantly being told through the biased and sensation seeking media. The documentary title already hints at this, but insights given by Bruno, a Belgian journalist and recurring character in the film, make it all the more evident: the news is wherever the media is – be that refugee camps at the Hungarian border or the Venice film festival.

 

‘Another News Story’ teaser

Both during the screening and discussion afterwards, the main issue with documenting refugees seems to be the fact that it is ongoing. As Ahmad al-Rahsid, a forced migration researcher at SOAS who fled from Aleppo in late 2012 comments, the Syrian conflict is considered by critics to be one of the most documented conflicts of humanitarian history, yet it took the picture of one little boy to finally cause a shift in political and public responses. People don’t typically respond to just another news story, and with crises without a beginning or end that is a very big problem. The refugee crisis didn’t start nor end in 2015; it is a long-term humanitarian issue that needs as much attention now as it did three years ago. Events like this are needed to help us realise that.

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Arts Week 2016: Can Journalism Change the World?

This post was contributed by Andrew Youngson, media and publicity officer in Birkbeck External Relations. On Tuesday 18 May, Andrew attended the event ‘Can Journalism Change World’ run by the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research as part of Arts Week 2016.

The event also marked the launch of the new MA Investigative Reporting, which commences in the 2016-17 year this autumn. It also highlighted the Google Investigative Fellowship (applications close on Friday May 20).

JournalismA panel of top journalists, commentators and academics came together on the second night of Birkbeck Arts Week 2016 to discuss the power and responsibility of journalism at a time of great change for the industry.

“Journalism is on the brink,” Dr Justin Schlosberg told the gathered audience of students, practitioners, scholars and members of the public. Across the course of the evening, we heard lots of evidence to back this up: Traditional revenue streams are thinning, digital technologies are morphing, socio-political structures are

adapting, audience attention spans are waning. All this and more makes for a very dynamic playing field of opportunities and challenges for people reporting the news.

The Fourth Estate was once heralded for its ability – and indeed duty – to question power structures, and to look beyond the status quo. But with such a changing landscape for today’s media industry, can – and should – journalism change the world?

The following panellists made their individual responses to the main question at hand:

Peter Barron (vp communications and public affairs, Google)

Peter Barron

Peter Barron

Peter began by responding that he believed yes, journalism can change the world. Citing recent revelations as the Hillsborough disaster and Panama Papers leak, he said both proved how the profession is still changing the world. The flow of free information and expression, he said, is key to making the world a better place.

He went on to describe that Google aims to be a positive force where freedom of information is concerned. He referenced three current initiatives of the global tech organisation which he said aptly demonstrate this particular mission, namely: Google’s product development (such as the Accelerated Mobile Pages project); its training and research activities; and its €150m Digital News Initiative innovation fund.

Ewen MacAskill (defence and security correspondent, the Guardian)

Ewen McAskill

Ewen McAskill

While he admitted journalism is facing an extremely challenging financial climate, Ewen took a broadly optimistic view, noting that the profession is much better than it has ever been in terms of the public accessibility to journalism, and also in terms of the professions two-way communication with audiences.

Dr Schlosberg then pitched Ewen the more direct question of whether he thought whistle-blowers such as Edward Snowden and Julian Assange – both of whom Ewen has reported on – have changed anything. Ewen responded that, in terms of increasing public awareness of government surveillance, yes, figures like Snowden and Assange have effected changed. Politically, however, very little has changed. On a whole, people just aren’t as worried about privacy, especially in the UK.

Owen Jones (author and columnist for the Guardian)

Owen Jones

Owen Jones

Owen began by stating he didn’t consider himself a journalist. He is a writer; one that doesn’t particularly enjoy writing, but as a political activist he sees it as a means to an end. Change, he went on to argue, happens with collective action. And further, journalism is at its best when “punching upwards”.

A major problem that stands in the way of the UK media punching upwards, he said, is that it has increasingly become “a closed shop for the privileged”. There is no such thing as “objective journalism”, he said – only journalists and writers such as he who openly disclose their bias e.g. in the form of opinion columns; and those who try to hide it, dressing their reporting as objective news. The rise of unpaid internships in the media is compounding this picture, leading to a situation where “if you can live off the bank of mum and dad, you can afford to be exploited. So we discriminate not on the basis of talent, but on your parent’s wealth”.

The UK media industry therefore is populated by – and predominantly reflects the tastes, biases, prejudices and life experiences of – the white upper-middle class i.e. the status quo.

“The press aren’t doing the job they’re meant to be doing,” he concluded. “We need journalists who see themselves as part of a broader collective struggling to bring power to account”.

Peter Jukes (author, screenwriter, playwright and investigative blogger)

Peter Jukes

Peter Jukes

Peter, who said he identifies more as a blogger than a journalist, highlighted the importance of social media in challenging power structures. Rather than see the likes of Twitter as “an echo chamber”, he believes in “the strength of the crowd” that come together through social media.

“People out there are witnessing and giving testimony,” he said. “It’s a revelation in the way people get and share the news.”

On the flipside, one aspect of the digital era does worry him: monopolies. The power holders which worry him aren’t media moguls like Rupert Murdoch, but rather digital giants such Google and Amazon. The kind of power they have, he said, corrupts.

Professor Natalie Fenton (Professor of media and communications, Goldsmiths)

Prof Natalie Fenton

Prof Natalie Fenton

Prof Fenton said she would try to “put academic bones” on the points which had been raised during the evening. Two major archetypes of modern journalism had emerged during the discussion: the “heroic journalist” and the “delinquent jackal journalist”. Whether a practitioner veers towards one or the other depends in large part on their work conditions.

She cited “Journalists in the UK” – a report published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism – which highlights some worrying statistics on the conditions today’s journalists are increasingly working within, including that:

  • 61% of journalists say public relations material has increased in their publication
  • 76% say the pressure of advertising considerations has increased on their work
  • 52% say pressure towards sensationalist news has increased

Increasing workloads, falling numbers of stable employment opportunities, and a lack of legal protection for journalists, are also significant factors.

“When you have a confluence of all these types of factors, you have to look critically at whether journalism can change the world. There are some real problems we are facing,” she concluded.

Dr Benjamin Worthy (lecturer in politics, Birkbeck)

Dr Benjamin Worthy

Dr Benjamin Worthy

Dr Worthy rounded off the panel session with three reasons for optimism:

  • There is far more information and ways of getting it today than 20 years ago
  • There are more ways to distribute this information today
  • There are more ways to be involved in the conversation, both formal (e.g. online petitions) and informal (e.g. social media)

And also three reasons for pessimism:

  • Information on its own isn’t enough. It is merely the first step
  • The attention cycle for news is short. For journalism to maintain a strong campaign for change, it needs to find a way to hold waning attention spans
  • The State is very powerful, and it will stomp down attempts at disclosure of information

The panel session was followed by an open Q&A with the audience. Among the points discussed were:

  • The issue of public apathy and waning attention cycle
  • The question is we are destined to see investigative journalism moving into the philanthropic arm of the industry, rather than remaining as a sustainable profession in its own right.

Find out more

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After Leveson

This post was contributed by James Brown, from Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations, who attended the event ‘After Leveson. What sort of press regulation?‘ on Saturday 20 October 2012.

With one very big media scandal dominating the news agenda, you might be forgiven for forgetting another one currently rumbling away in the background. But the Leveson Enquiry into Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press is due to publish its findings before Christmas, so Saturday was good timing for Birkbeck’s Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life to hold a panel discussion on what the Enquiry has told us – so far.

It’s easy to forget the sheer scale of the Leveson Enquiry: in its eight months of hearings, it took testimonies from 474 witnesses from 135 different organisations, generating over 6,000 pages of evidence. Against this backdrop, it’s easy to see why first panellist, Lance Price, felt that the Enquiry has a “pretty thankless task” in making some sense of the information acquired, and wondered whether the process had been sufficiently well-defined to reach a conclusion. Price has had a pretty good vantage point from which to view how the press and politicians work together. For three years, from 1998–2001, he worked as media advisor to Tony Blair’s government, and later referred to Rupert Murdoch as “the 24th member of the cabinet. On many major decisions his views were taken into account.”

He speculated as to whether the some of the Enquiry’s participants, let alone the public, might be confused by the wealth of information disclosed: “One minute we’re hearing about the ‘industrial level’ of phone hacking … about the fact that the Prime Minister was riding horses with Rebekah Brooks … the next whether it’s in the public interest to know that some of our movie stars once slept with prostitutes … and consider whether Prime Ministers were so scared of the media that even when they were in office, they were unable to challenge it.” By way of illustration, Price recounted a speech about the Tony Blair had given in his last days as Prime Minister, in which he said: “Today’s media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack. In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits.”

Lance Price said of Blair’s speech that “at the point at which he really had nothing left to lose, he pulled his punches … he later confessed that he hadn’t said all the things he’d thought about saying … he said nothing whatsoever about News International, didn’t mention the Sun or the Times. Instead he focused on the Independent, probably the least guilty of the sorts of things he was talking about.”

Second panelist, Joan Smith, also had a personal insight into the ethics of the press, having been a victim of phone hacking whilst being married to then Labour minister Denis McShane. In January this year, after receiving an apology and compensation from News International, she wrote:

“It’s easy to joke about phone hacking and think it’s of little consequence. Some people assume that the silent listeners had to sit through dozens of mundane messages about picking up dry-cleaning, but my experience and that of other victims suggests it was much more serious than that. One of the reasons I was so angry was the sickening realisation that strangers had listened to my voicemails in the aftermath of a private tragedy.”

In Saturday’s session, she continued this theme, iterating that, while many people equate the Leveson Enquiry with celebrities having their phones hacked, in many more cases it was less famous people who were at the wrong end of journalists’ sharp practices. Smith recounted the story of Paul Dadge, who was at the centre of one of the most enduring images of the July 7 bombings. A former fire-fighter, he found himself one train behind the bombed carriages caught up at Edgware Road. Once evacuated from the train, he volunteered his triage skills, and was photographed having applied a necessarily rudimentary face-mask to a woman who’d received severe facial burns. His phone was hacked shortly afterwards, for which he successfully sued News International.

Smith said, “People like him never expected to be in the public eye – weren’t  actually in the public eye except for in a horrific terrorist attack that got them dragged into this … What we discovered through the Leveson process was that there was this other kind of journalism where people who don’t really want to be in the media find themselves thrust into the eye of the storm … And when they seek redress, when what’s printed about them in newspapers is fanciful or untrue, the system of regulation doesn’t work.”

The final speaker was Dr Evan Harris, advisor to Hacked Off, the campaign for free and accountable media, who set out what kind of legislation he believes is necessary to balance the freedom the media needs to do its job with the accountability it needs to be held to. He pointed out that hacking is already illegal but that “criminal law is an extremely clumsy way of dealing with people’s behaviour … The fact that there is a legal sanction attached to something does not really discourage you, it’s the likelihood of getting caught.”

But one of the problems in how Leveson’s report might be received could have been foretold in how the scandal was reported when it broke. Harris said: “if this scandal had happened in any other industry, particularly one that’s so important, that the first people, I’m pleased to say, that would have complained would have been the newspapers – saying it’s outrageous that the doctors, the lawyers, the politicians have covered this up … What we learned from the Leveson Enquiry is that the press won’t fairly report an enquiry into their own industry.”

In some ways, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by this, because we have been here before. Since World War II, Britain has seen three royal commissions on the press, plus two government inquiries. As Professor Roy Greenslade wrote earlier this year: “On all five occasions, publishers and editors made no attempt to disguise their resentment at the poking of official noses into their affairs. Similarly, by marching behind the banner of press freedom, they resisted, or watered down, each recommendation for regulatory reform.”

And as Lance Price went on to document, the relationship between politicians and the press has always been a complex one. In 1953, Winston Churchill had a stroke  which was hidden from public view when officials persuaded compliant newspaper editors that it wasn’t ‘in the public interest’ for them to know the severity of Churchill’s illness.

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The Vacuum

This blog post was contributed by Sorcha Miller, a Birkbeck student from the Department of Media and Cultural Studies.

In his Orwell Lecture at Birkbeck, Alan Rusbridger talked about a vacuum of 18 months in connection to the widespread phone hacking phenomenon at News International. That is, roughly 18 months passed before anything happened about NI’s obvious widespread invasion of thousands of people’s privacy, their regular usage of blackmail and intimidation. All that was revealed by the Guardian, but was ignored by all relevant Government bodies. Nothing happened, nothing changed. NI still owned 40% of the British Media, was about to own more, and one of the former NI executives, under whose nose many questionable things happened, was the Prime Minister’s head of communication. In the meantime the Guardian kept coming up with the goods, the details and the filth. Despite the Sun attacking the Guardian’s investigation, senior policemen trying to convince Mr Rusbridger to stop pursuing the story, and persecution of journalists involved.

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