Is Googling a new journalist’s name fair?

March 28 2011

Curiously, I’ve read several articles recently by editors looking to employ journalists full time or freelance who’ve said that the first thing they do is search for the applicant’s name and ‘journalist’, and if they aren’t the first link that Google throws up, they’ll delete the application. It came up in the Guardian’s recent web chat about freelance writing, for example. The point is about the importance of SEO in writing today – something I find quite sad but, as an ex-editor, can understand.

I’m not sure there is such a thing as ‘good’ SEO, which is when writing is crafted to maximise search engine visibility without affecting the quality of the work or the message of what you have to say, although I do tend to practice it where nowadays whether a commission for a website specifically asks for it or not. At least I do where it’s relevant – in things like reviews and short news stories, not so much the long form stuff.

It’s just a fact of writing online now.

I find it the editors in question (I won’t link to them here) attitude a bit disheartening though. After all, what if you have a surname like, oh, I don’t know, say… ‘Oxford’. All the SEO skills in the world are going to struggle against the might of the University Press when it comes to getting top links, especially given all the authors in history whose works get listed as “Surname, Adam (Oxford)”. Google doesn’t really recognise brackets you see, but an editor looking to carve through CVs isn’t going to think of that.

It’s only because I have a very large and well established portfolio of writing that I tend to float to the top when googling my name these days. It took years for that to happen.

If I was just starting out my name would, apparently, hamper my ability to get hired. I’d like to think that that would be a bit short sighted of a potential employer.


Madonna’s Malawi charity squandered millions

March 25 2011


Nuff said really. Via the Guardian.



February 4 2011

I mentioned a while back that I was going to blog about Machaworks, after visiting them while I was in Zambia, and then never got round to it. This is why: Blogging from the bush: How ICT-led development is working in rural Zambia.

There’s tons of stuff I ddin’t mention in that piece though – but I’ll get round to it..


Goodbye Katine

September 17 2010

Shots from the Guardian site, as I forgot my camera last night...

Last night I went to a seminar organised by Sound Delivery and Third Sector PR about the end of the Guardian’s Katine project.

For those who don’t know, Katine was the first attempt by a major media organisation (that I’m aware of) to answer critics who say foreign correspondents never do follow ups. Over three years a veritable army of some of the UK’s best global affairs  reporters descended at intervals upon a small Ugandan village called Katine.

The plan was to detail the progress of a major investment by Amref and give some genuine insight into the lives of the people living there. Community stories would be told, and readers would gain some understanding of the process and impact of international development through NGOs. By the end of the project, they had two talented African journalists living in or near Katine full time, and were posting up to 10 stories a week from the community.

It was a brave project, which is evolving into the broader coverage of the new Global Development site. I think was broadly successful. I’m not sure it’s settled the argument about how writers in this field should work though – Liz Ford, who edits the Katine site and is launching Global Development with Madeleine Bunting, gave the talk. Even with the backing of the Guardian and Barclays et al, the key problems she described two problems which will be familiar to all journalists and communications officers who try to get stories about development projects into the news.

I won’t quote extensively, but they boiled down to problems with  getting development stories into the main paper without an additional hook, and getting usable materials back from the field – especially video.

I think the latter especially highlights the fact that  despite the rising power of citizen journalism as a tool for getting information out of poor areas traditionally underserved by the media in the UK, it’s not quite time to retire skilled foreign correspondents just yet. More than ever we need media literate advocates to help get voices heard, and a UK audience has an expectation of presentation which it’s unrealistic to expect someone who doesn’t even own a TV to be able to produce.

Still, Liz did say she’s confident that in the future it could be possible to do something like Katine without sending a single British reporter overseas, by working closely with intermediary charities like Panos (who train overseas media and help set up community newspapers and radio in the developing world).

Hopefully there’ll be some more experiments in reporting along those lines making it onto the new site soon. In the meantime, read this feature there by my current favourite academic.

Guardian to launch global development website

August 21 2010

Interesting tip-off from Dan Gril today – the Guardian are advertising for an editor to look after a new site dedicated to global development. The job brief sounds very intriguing – and promising for any writer with lots of international development stories and few opportunities to place them…


Kyrgyz ex-leader’s son claims asylum in the UK

June 18 2010

I wrote a piece for the Guardian today expressing anger at the lack of international response in Kyrgyzstan. I wish now I’d spent the time doing the other thing I had thought about following up – the whereabouts of Maxim Bakiyev, son of the ousted president of Kyrgyzstan who is wanted on charges of fraud in his home country.

After the April revolution he went missing – believed to be in the US and accused of bankrolling groups seeking to destabilise the interim government. He’s at least part of the reason that country is so broke at the moment, and is suspected of channelling aid money destined for the incredibly needy in Kyrgyzstan of to his private bank accounts.

He turned up a couple of days ago in a private plane at Farnborough airport, where he was detained by immigration officials. the Kyrgyz government claimed he had been arrested and requested his extradition. If only things were that simple. According to PA reports and the Telegraph, not only has Bakiyev Jr applied for asylum and been granted a temporary stay, he’s engaged the notorious Carter Ruck to represent him.

Wonder where he got the money for those learned friends?

I’m not usually one of those demanding asylum seekers go home, but in this case I think I might go all Daily Express.

Power to the people

September 18 2009

I’ve almost finished the feature for The Guardian, and although I hope to write more on Kyrgyzstan soon, it feels sad that this particular adventure is coming to an end. So here’s a final post about an incredible art project to round things up for the time being.

A giant bonnet emblem for the whole city of Bishkek.

Like a giant bonnet emblem for the whole city of Bishkek.

It’s easy to forget, living in post-Blair Britain, that in some ‘less developed’ countries people can still force their governments to listen.

In the UK, a million people can take to the streets to protest against an illegal war and be written off as a mere trifle. London be brought to a halt by crowds complaining about bank bailouts, but the public money is still pissed away on bankers’ bonuses. A postal strike can damn near bankrupt the likes of me, who still mails cheques to his bank, but the case for keeping local branches goes unheard. Despite decades of state investment in high quality comprehensive education, the idea that the general public might have a better idea of what they want to do with their money than the government is still an anathema to the political classes.

They wonder why a generation has given up interest in Westminster. Our politicians could learn a lot from ‘backward democracies’ like Kyrgyzstan, where the public can not only force politicians to listen, but an art project can change the world.

A single standpipe is currently working in the 1,000 home settlement of Kyrman

A single standpipe is currently working in the 200 home settlement of Kyrman

Just to put things in perspective, it’s no worker’s paradise, the Kyrgyz Republic. Lenin may point with revolutionary fervour at the parliament building, but forty odd percent of people live on less than the dollar a day standard for absolute poverty and corruption is endemic. If you’re ill and can’t afford to bribe your way into hospital, there’s a good chance you’ll die before a doctor can see you. In one settlement we visited last week, at least four women had recently passed away giving birth in their homes.

Critical to understanding Kyrgyzstan is awareness of the two tier legal structure. The constitution is one of the most liberal – if not the most liberal – in the former Soviet Union. Great swathes of it were imported wholesale from places like Switzerland and Sweden. Freedom of movement and expression are guaranteed, healthcare and education are promised to be universal and free.

The reality, though, is that state institutions have held on to communist rule books for day to day life, and are resistant to change because doing so is lucrative for them. If you move from countryside to city, you’d better be rich enough to bribe someone to stamp your papers to confirm your new address, because without this ‘propiska‘ in your passport, you’ll have no access to medicine, education or utilities in your new home. The endemic corruption spread from this point out: ambulances won’t even drive to your front door unless you can guarantee an up front bribe, and if you can’t pay the police to look the other way when they stop and search you for your passport, it’s fifteen days in the cells for you. And here, they don’t bother with a mattress when they beat you, they just keep going until you’re ready to phone a friend who might be able to pay them off.

And the politicians are happy to turn a blind eye. Until a recent survey by the American University of Central Asia actually put a figure on the number of unregistered internal migrants living in poverty in Bishkek (about 25% of the city population), the problem of the squats and shanty towns around the edges of town and the major markets was invisible to parliament. Why bother to stop police from beating up migrants as they queue outside the labour exchange? It’s not like they’ll be voting any time soon, they don’t have propiska.

Five families live in this one house in Nijnyaya Ala-Archa

Five families live in this one house in Nijnyaya Ala-Archa

Problems are easily buried underneath other problems here, like Satan’s own Matroishka playset. When I asked an MP whether or not any action was being taken against the front agencies who advertise lucrative bar work in Russia and Europe for young girls, but actually force them into the sex trade, he told me the issue had never been discussed. “We have too many other problems to solve first” he said.

And yet, and yet… People can make things change. A week ago, almost as an afterthought to our tour of Kyrgyzstan, our Red Crescent hosts asked us if we’d like to see their art project, and meet Orla and Tarot from the Irish organisation Active Art that was helping to organise it.

It was astounding. Two groups of women – some of whom we’d met earlier in the week – that had separately been through training in sewing and computer skills have joined together to create an art installation that will be open to the public in November. The project is called ‘Marshrutka‘, or minibus. The centrepiece will be a minibus, of the kind that passes for public transport here, covered in traditional felt hangings to be made to look like a travelling yurt. Once inside, visitors will be able to see felt pictures depicting the migrants’ journey into Bishkek from the country side in just such a vehicle, pictures which depict officials asking for bribes, families crushed into single rooms, and the violence meted out against them by the system.

The women have created video and audio stories that tell their own personal tales, too harrowing to ignore. Of giving birth in the middle of only room you have, surrounded by your seven children. Of being turned away from shops and kiosks, and stopped and searched by police. Of starvation and fetching water from a shared standpipe. Of… well, you get the idea.

Can you see what it is yet?

Can you see what it is yet? I didn't say the artworks were subtle

The installation will be open for a few days, and then the fun begins. The marshrutka will take to the streets of Bishkek, and pull up on corners for anyone to get in and see the truth about their city’s invisible, yet economically essential, inhabitants. That last point is important: because whatever the local residents think about the migrants – and it’s the usual ‘smelly peasants taking our jobs’ kind of thing – without them the city would cease to function.

Bishkek isn’t huge – around a million inhabitants – and the downtown area has lots of big open spaces that a brightly covered marshrutka will be very visible in. It’s like Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters gave up on hippy tripping their way across country and decided to ram raid the White House to highlight the issue of healthcare. I can’t wait.

During the week of the marshrutka’s tour of the city there’s a round table convening to discuss the situation and rights of migrants, organised by local activists, the university, mayor’s office and the Red Crescent. Hopefully, it’ll result in a change of the law regarding propiskas and promises to address the impossible corruption which faces newcomers to the city. The marshrutka is just a small part of this process, a simple gesture, but it’s going to be a hard one to ignore.

Self-portraits of the women involved in the marshrutka project.

Self-portraits of the women involved in the marshrutka project.

Kyrgyz pictures up…

September 14 2009

Claudia at work

Claudia at work. My shots are but a poor reflection of her amazing images. Not worthy to carry her lenses and all that.

Lots up on my Flickr site. Enjoy.

A song from Osh

September 13 2009

Jamilya started the self help co-operative in Gulbaar village near Osh, not only runs the sewing group which makes school uniforms and local craftwork, but also volunteers for the Red Crescent and helps reach out to abused women in the area. Thanks to her, many women have been able to escape from illegal, forced marriages and put their lives back together.

She also has a great singing voice. This song roughly translates as: “Mother, my mother, I am the girl you can be proud of, and through me you shall live forever.”

The Kyrgyz Red Crescent

There’s lots of stories which will be told from the trip to Kyrgyzstan in print, but it’s unlikely that all the people from the Red Crescent will get quite the credit they deserve. So here’s a thank you for their generosity and helpfulness in putting up with a British journalist nagging them all day with questions that they never hinted might be as banal, ignorant and repetitive as they no doubt were.

Jamilya, with two ladies from Njinyaya Ala-Archa

Jamilya, with two ladies from Njinyaya Ala-Archa

Jamilya, Head of the Health and Social Care Department under whose remit the women’s group work, trekked all of the country with us. From Parliament to the villages of Jalalabat, sharing in our frantic days of short meetings and long drives around. Her tapping of the watch signalling that it was time for me to shut up and let Claudia, our incredible photographer, get to work was repeatedly ignored by me, and without her patience and ability to quickly reorganise the schedule I don’t think we’d have got out of Bishkek. We’d certainly have missed two flights. Her knowledge of the issues surrounding facing the women of Kyrgyzstan is second to none, and I’d love to be a fly on the wall the next time she sits down with government ministers to discuss the changes in the law that must happen, and the next round of funding for the program. A formidable force indeed.

The delightfully Russian Elena, previously Press Secretary for the KRC

The delightfully Russian Elena, previously Press Secretary for the KRC

Elena and Rimma, who work with the migrant groups in Bishkek and co-ordinate the actions of the various programs into one coherent whole are two of the most committed and dedicated people I’ve met. Their ability to repeat over and again the finer points of their work which took a while to sink in and never get annoyed made our lives much easier, and their interest in our work gratifying. Their capacity for vodka and fun over lunch makes the harshness of life there more bearable.

Gulmira and Mira, photo courtesy of Mandy at the BRC

Gulmira and Mira, photo courtesy of Mandy at the BRC

Gulmira, who mans the phone lines for Kyrgyz citizens wherever in the world they are, from the slums of Bishkek to Moscow, arm here compatriots with the knowledge they need to avoid exploitation and the confidence to exert their rights. She has an amazing sense of humour, an excellent command of English and a lovely sister, Mira, who makes the most adorable felt animals (and just about anything else that can be made with wool) too.

And finally, our translator Baktygul. Normally, she’d be wandering from her house to an office in Bishkek to facilitate meetings for World Bank types then back home in time for tea, but we made her schlep from Bishkek to Jalalabat with barely an hour off, never giving her a moment to catch her breath after climbing the endless staircases that characterise the interior of Soviet era Kyrgyz government buildings. Instead of quietly sobbing into her blov, I think she actually enjoyed it.

According to them, I have become a real Kyrgyz man, thanks to the Ak Kalpak (literally ‘White Hat’) which they presented to me after the final debriefing. Suits me, n’est pas?

Not another profile pic

Not another profile pic