Reporting the Storm

On August 19th, the Islamic State uploaded a video to YouTube entitled ‘A Message to America’. In it, a knife-wielding militant stands over the terrified James Foley, a US journalist captured in northwestern Syria in 2012. The beheading begins and the sequence includes an image of his bloody, decapitated corpse. On Tuesday, Steven Sotloff met the same grisly fate.

Jon Lee Anderson, a staff writer at The New Yorker, was James Foley’s friend. They’d reported on multiple conflicts together across many years, including the civil war in Syria.


Last week Anderson gave the inaugural lecture at the ‘Ecole de journalisme’ of Sciences Po in Paris. His account of Foley’s murder set the tone. Having seen 7 of his closest friends die on duty in the last 3 years, Anderson painted a bleak, grim picture of the lethal challenges facing war correspondents and investigative reporters today.

‘They’re making a sport of killing journalists’, he said. ‘We live in a world where the new normal is chaos. The new normal is chronic conflict.’

His lecture was at once terrifying, moving and deeply inspirational.

Anderson has seen his fair share of violence. His first big break as a journalist came covering the hotspots of the Cold War in Central America for TIME Magazine in the early 1980s. He would fully immerse himself in conflicts, often going as far as living alongside guerrillas and freedom fighters.

‘I like to understand their psyche,’ he explained. ‘I like to go to a conflict zone and work out what’s happening. I write long stories about what I see there.’

Yet he found TIME stifling, a magazine with ‘establishment’ tendencies that suppressed his pursuit of the impartial truth. Editors would often turn down his work and he began to doubt his ability as a writer.

‘But as I got more experienced,’ Anderson said, ‘I realised I was actually a pretty good reporter and I was seeing things that needed to be reported.’

Frustration at this great American publication pushed him into freelance and, most recently, The New Yorker, a world where Anderson feels better able to fulfil, in his view, a journalist’s highest calling: spreading the impartial truth in the best way possible.

How can I be independent? How do I avoid ingratiating myself to my editor-in-chief just because I want a promotion? These were the questions that Anderson wrestled with as a young writer.

In recalling his recent work for The New Yorker he told some masterful, harrowing stories. Two stick in the mind.

First, the story of how he’d seen a father lose his son in Libya. Osama ben Sadik, a volunteer ambulance driver, had come with his two sons to support the revolution against Qadaffi. Muhannad, the elder of the two sons, was fighting at the front.

Anderson relays the torturous account of how Osama hears of the apparent death of Muhannad, shot by Qadaffi’s forces, and the ensuing trauma of not knowing his exact fate. Might he still be alive? Is there still hope? Osama goes through cycles of debilitating anxiety, fear, and finally, when discovering his son’s body, religious rapture.

‘This was clearly the story,’ Anderson said. ‘I could touch people. In Arkansas, in France, or wherever they read it. I could touch people with a universal story about loss. That’s what war is about; it’s about fathers losing their sons. If you can reach through all the murk and the mess, and get an emotional response, you can change people’s minds.’

Not only was this story deeply moving, it hit upon one of the key aspirations of any journalist – the aspiration to make a difference. Anderson was honest about the fortunate position he enjoys at the New Yorker, a magazine said to be read by elites: ‘I’m finally in a place where, if I write something, it can have an impact. It may shift points of view. It might even cause legislation. But it takes a lot to get there.’

Second, the story of how he came to understand the power of Twitter. As a seasoned hack Anderson had initially been baffled by this newfound craze, thinking it was just a ‘useless distraction’, ‘something that kids did to send love notes to each other’.

But then Syria happened. It was January 28th 2012 and Jon was trapped with some civilians and members of the Free Syrian Army in the mountainous town of Rankous surrounded by Assad’s tanks.

The shelling started and Anderson called the foreign ministry to ask if they would hold fire whilst the journalists left the village. They were given 30 minutes. As he left, he took a photo on his iPhone of a woman and child with a few members of the FSA.

Once safe, he got Internet access and instantly uploaded the photo to Twitter.

The social network went berserk. Within minutes he had 1000s of new followers and the world had been alerted to an attack on a civilian area. ‘I was criticised for showing the faces of the civilians but that was my point. Maybe now the regime could be shamed into not firing on the town.’

Ultimately the tweet was fruitless. The tanks rolled in and everybody was killed. But Anderson retains a firm conviction about the humanitarian role of journalists. ‘You must not only be a journalist. You also have a duty to save civilian lives. You have to do it. Even at the risk of violating whatever code of ethics we have.’

Having seen so much bloodshed and violence over the course of his decorated career, with Syria being just one example, Anderson pulls no punches in criticising today’s international order.

Referencing rumbling sectarian conflict in South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Libya, conflicts inter-connected and fuelled by the spread of arms, and continuing war in Ukraine, he was blunt: ‘The UN is a giant with clay feet. It, NATO, the EU; none of them are doing their job anymore.’

He was equally critical of the intelligence community, describing it as ‘at an all time low’, and that it had now fallen to journalists in many parts of the world to inform politicians about developing crises.

Yet despite this critical pragmatism, this weariness of war, this life of tracking seemingly endless conflict, he continues to go back. For a moment I felt like I could see the world through his lens. The articles are published, but to what effect? Will powerful people listen? Even if they do, will they change anything?

It seems futile but he keeps going, he keeps hunting the impartial truth. This was the inspiration. The relentless, unyielding bravery, combined with the unwavering commitment to the importance of his vocation.

‘Ive been shot at. I’ve had things done to me. But I’ve been lucky.’ I was in awe.

We now spend more time in front of a screen than in bed, Ofcom study shows

Britons now spend more time watching TV, using their mobile and on the computer than they do sleeping, according to new research.


The study, by communications regulator Ofcom, found that the average UK adult uses technology for eight hours and 41 minutes a day, 20 minutes longer than they spend in bed.

The research also found – perhaps worryingly – that six-year-olds have the same understanding of using gadgets such as tablets and mobile phones as 45-year olds, whilst people were reaching their peak understanding of digital technology at the age of 14 to 15.

Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards said: “Our research shows that a ‘millennium generation’ is shaping communications habits for the future. While children and teenagers are the most digitally savvy, all age groups are benefiting from new technology.”

Dr Arthur Cassidy, however, a social media psychologist, expressed concerns about the trends revealed in the report: “We are increasingly shifting away from human social interactions and this excessive use of technology presents a developmental concern.

“We are now saturated with digital technology and people are becoming psychologically dependent on their smart phones and technology,” he told The Independent.

Dr Cassidy linked the findings with increasing instances of internet and social media addiction among young people, associated with problems such as lack of attention, focus and quality sleep.

Other key findings of the Ofcom report include evidence that almost nine in 10 of 16 to 24-year olds have a smartphone, using them for an average of three hours and 36 minutes per day.

Young people are also increasingly turning away from talking on the phone, with only three per cent of their communications time spent on voice calls.

The overwhelming majority of their time spent communicating (94 per cent) was text-based, such as using social media sites or instant messaging.

Jane Rumble, head of media research and intelligence at Ofcom, said the data led to the “question whether the millennium generation is losing its voice” or whether children will make voice calls more as they get older.

Tablets were also found to be growing in popularity, with more than four in 10 households now owning a tablet compared to a quarter the previous year.

This rise included the older generation, with 22 per cent of over 65s now owning a tablet compared to just two per cent two years ago.

Photograph: EPA

Published in The Independent and the i paper – Thursday 7th August 2014









French, politics and chaos in the Ivory Coast

This summer I spent a memorable week in Abidjan in the Ivory Coast participating in the 6th ‘Parlement Francophonie des Jeunes’, a youth parliament for French-speaking countries, with participants from as far afield as Laos, Lebanon and Togo.


Representing my home island of Jersey alongside another student and a local politician, it was simultaneously a week of chaos, tropical weather, maddening African bureaucracy, life-long friendships and fascinating political discussion.

Our conference kicked off with an opening ceremony at the Assemblée Nationale of the Côte d’Ivoire, presided over by Guillaume Soro, the President of the Assembly.


Reaching the Assemblée by bus proved an eye-opening experience and revealed a town in the process of post civil-war reconstruction.

The sign ‘chantier’ frequently appeared amidst dilapidated, mucky buildings and there was a chaotic buzz of grimy orange Toyota taxis battling for the road against trucks laden with building materials.

We jumped straight into our committee work after the opening ceremony and I was working in the ‘Commission de la Cooperation et du Développement’, with a specific focus on the role of the youth as a force of development.

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I was nervous at first and found it difficult to keep up with the quick-fire French spoken in a plethora of accents but I soon got the hang of it and was able to make some significant contributions to our work.

Our aim as a committee was to devise a resolution that took a holistic view of what it means to ‘develop’ a country, looking beyond the merely material and including considerations of sustainability and investment in human skills.

The most interesting problem we discussed in light of these considerations was the ‘brain drain’ – where developing countries invest heavily in the education of their youth only to see those students depart for the developed world after their studies in pursuit of greater opportunities.

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At the end of the week we reviewed the resolutions of the other committees, which had considered issues such as the penalisation of the transmission of HIV and the role of parliaments today, and proposed amendments, before voting on their passage. These resolutions were then presented to the senior ‘Assocation Parlementaire de la Francophonie’ (APF) conference.

But whilst the politics of the week was a resounding success, our experiences around the conference were frankly chaotic.

Our troubles began at Abidjan airport when the immigration officials retained our passports without explanation and ushered us through to the baggage area.

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After a couple of hours of remonstrating with a variety of ear-piece wearing, gun-wielding men in numerous different military uniforms, we were informed that our passports were to be held at the police station pending the receipt of our visas.

Eventually we retrieved our passports from this police station later in the week but only after much haggling, stress and a decent quantity of West African francs.

And if getting into Abidjan hadn’t been easy, we were well prepared for the trials of getting out.

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First came the unforgettable journey from the Assemblée Nationale to the airport in a ‘government car’, essentially a flash Mercedes with its hazard lights on, which saw us negotiate the eccentricities of the Abidjan rush hour, including goats, men selling enormous paddling pools and cars mounting the central reservation of the motorway.

Second came the flight cancellation, consigning us to another night in Abidjan and the necessity of boarding one of those ill-fated orange Toyotas as we attempted to catch the next plane to Brussels.

After all this and many hours of travelling I was astounded to be safely reunited with my luggage at Heathrow Airport and never have I been happier to set foot on Jersey soil.

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Overall, including all of the drama, the PFJ was a great life experience where I improved my French, learnt an enormous amount about other cultures and made many friends for the future.

I came to appreciate the importance of the Francophonie and the power of the French language, and it was an honour to represent the youth of Jersey at such a conference.