Saturday, 2 May 2015

New media and the 2nd Royal baby- Periscope onto a centuries old story

As a Moscow based television correspondent (@TomBartonJourno) it was fascinating to watch the reports coming from outside the hospital where Kate and Will’s royal baby number two arrived.

Twitter, Instagram and Facebook have all been big in the coverage of course. But the relatively new app Periscope, a live video feed app via your phone owned by Twitter (there are other such apps like Meerkat), has been raising some interesting possibilities.

- Reporters have been able to show their contextual knowledge and provide up-to-the-second updates as things happen. They have more time to report and are live constantly.

- These updates have been between their live ‘hits’, the times they are actually on the main channel screen for their respective broadcasters.

- Periscope users watching their streams have been asking questions in real time. Some of the correspondents have been variously,
- taking their viewers on little tours of the area outside the hospital
- having dedicated sessions answering audience questions

- It showed more of the usually hidden workings of television news. Reporters found themselves revealing on air on the app (for they are no less ‘on-air’ there than on the television channel) things like,
-what times their producers wanted them to go live
-how parts of their broadcast equipment worked and some of its technical difficulties
-details like the fact that on a British story British media are more likely to get to ask questions first (that little known broadcast etiquette applying in many countries for domestic broadcasters)

- They revealed more of themselves and their lives rather than just the story like,
-how tired they were and how long they had been working
-thanking viewers for compliments or answering them back for criticisms
-joking about their clothes and hairstyles
-using their own families as a comparison to the royals, perhaps revealing for the first time that they have children of their own and that as a result they would understand why Kate would be tired.

This throwing back the curtain and chatting about personal details is raising new questions. Does this turn reporters into celebrities themselves? Does it allow them to build their personal brand as an authority on the subject? But at this experimental stage it is fascinating to see both correspondent and audience experimenting with what is informative and entertaining.

On a media saturated event like this the correspondents are having to leave the app video every hour/30 minutes to go live on their actual television channels. Much of the rest of the time they were using their phone live streams with gusto.

I couldn’t help thinking that despite the obvious differences in quality, it’s not inconceivable that before long it will be app live streams that have become the main event and the live ‘hits’ on the television become more of an appendage.

Let me take this all the way to a theoretical conclusion. For the first time I could see more clearly than ever how technology like this may change how traditional media looks and runs. 

- Instead of separate TV channels and newspapers, news organisations would run online ‘streams’ or ‘feeds’ (we’re already learning a new jargon) 

- Some will be at the scene for events or developing stories like this 

- Others will be in a studio or newsroom and will aggregate reporting for stories that aren’t being covered constantly.

- One central reporter will be at the centre of each stream and will interview both guests and other of their own colleagues who have been finding the latest details on the phone, on social media or on the street. These reporters will come and ‘feed’ new information into the news stream. It won’t have to wait for the next news bulletin or edition. Everyone will be working in real time. On one level that may be more intense for everyone but on another it may free up more reporters to actually be finding out about the story. Newsrooms may become less busy as more reporters can simply check in to the stream via mobile technology when they find out something new.

British Royal families have been having babies for centuries. To some extent this trend too has already been taking shape in broadcast newsrooms. But outside that hospital I saw, through a periscope, a possible new world of news.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Is the West getting closer to using the 'I' word over Ukraine?

The US has reportedly started calling forces in eastern Ukraine ‘combined Russian-separatist’ forces. This, says Washington, is based on good evidence.

The move could bring the US and other western governments closer to Kiev’s position, in calling what is going on an invasion, Russia making war on Ukraine, and accept the consequences that may follow.

Russia’s government have repeatedly denied they are sending troops and weapons to the separatists. Many governments do not believe them.

It may also make it more likely that weapons might be supplied to Ukrainian forces.

It might make it harder for Russia, now identified explicitly as the aggressor, to divide EU countries on the issue of sanctions.

Kiev would likely applaud this, as would other former soviet dominated European countries that have been alarmed by Russia’s armed annexation of Crimea and backing for militants in eastern Ukraine.

US General Philip Breedlove, who is NATO’s top commander, says that Russia has taken much more of the command of the militant units it has been backing in eastern Ukraine. That and the Russian weapons systems flowing into eastern Ukraine could be signs of preparations for a new offensive against Ukraine, he added.

According to Russian polls over 80% of Russians support President Putin. But some Russians too, it’s difficult to know how many, don’t believe their leaders’ denials that Russian soldiers are being sent to fight and die in Ukraine.

Whether the ‘I’ word is broached or not, Ukrainian soldiers have been dying in militant shelling attacks with a regularity that makes people question whether the latest ceasefire in eastern Ukraine really has a chance or is just being used as a pause to build up more forces for renewed warfare.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Russia, Europe, Turkey and natural gas- Pipes in the Sky?

Europe is diversifying away from Russian natural gas.

It may be harder for Russia to charge higher prices to European customers in future as a result.

Russia’s price gouging and halts in supply in 2006, 2009 and 2014 have seen more accusations that Russia uses energy supplies as a political weapon.

Because of EU opposition to the breaking of ownership rules, Moscow had to close its much vaunted South Stream pipeline to Europe in December 2014.

It has sought to replace that with a pipeline through Turkey to south eastern Europe, the so called Turkish Stream.

In 1995 Russia recognised the Armenian Genocide by Turkey in 1915.

Russian President Vladimir Putin went to Armenia for the 100th anniversary in April 2015. 

His speech there reaffirming Russia’s recognition of the genocide brought a blasting from Turkey’s government.

Turkey said that Russia, “knows genocide well,” referring the the mass murder and deportations of the Soviet Union.

The episode can do nothing to help Russia’s pipeline dreams.

Indeed, there is much politely left aside in gas pipeline negotiations with Turkey. Turkey is a NATO member. The prospect of Iranian gas being piped to Europe instead has been raised. 

All of this raises the prospect of Russia’s gas announcements coming to sound like so much hot air.

A kleptocrat's son drowned, mortgage slaves arrested and neo-nazis protected- a weekend in Russia

Over the 21st and 22nd of March 2015 a number of different groups in Russia had things go wrong- 

Former Ukrainian President and Russian stooge Viktor Yanukovich lost a son who drowned in Siberia's lake Baikal. Others around Yanukovich, who fled power after police massacred protesters in February 2014, have since died in mysterious circumstances. Yanukovich is wanted by Interpol, accused by Ukraine of embezzling millions of dollars of public funds.

Protesters, who have faced crippling repayments after having their mortgages in dollars, were arrested in Red Square.

Neo-nazi, fascist, anti-semite, anti-immigrant, Islamophobe, far right ultranationalists were invited to a hotel in St Petersburg by one of Russia's far right political parties. Pro human rights protesters outside were arrested while the radical nationalists inside were protected by militarist Russian cossack troops. The protesters say it is shameful that Russia claim to be the defeater of wartime fascism while supporting fascists. Reports have been growing that this is all part of Kremlin attempt to divide and rule Europe by supporting fringe parties. The Kremlin and its propaganda engines have been like a broken record criticising Ukraine for being a home for a 'fascist junta'. In fact Russia is.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Russia's sub par submarines- Trouble under the surface of military reform

There have been several recent indications (two submarine accidents and a missile test failure) that the $650 billion being taken away from Russian schools and hospitals and thrown at the military budget may be money down the plughole, and that's even without the corruption to take into account.

The Russian nuclear powered submarine Tomsk was undergoing repairs near Russia's far eastern port of Vladivostok on Monday when it burst into flames and burnt for five hours. The Defence ministry eventually changed its story and admitted that fifteen sailors had been wounded in the fire, contradicting its earlier certainty that everything was totally fine. It was the second fire of this kind on board a Russian submarine in less than two years.

The first was the submarine Yekaterinburg which also burst into flames in its shipyard in north western Russia in December 2011. Officials said at the time that there had been no nuclear missiles on board. That was a lie said one respected magazine afterwards, citing its own sources. This caused an international furore with Norway's Foreign Minister among those demanding the truth.

In August this year an Indian submarine INS Sindhurakshak was rocked by two huge explosions and fire ripped through the vessel as it sat in dock in Mumbai. Eighteen sailors on board were killed by the blasts and the boat sank in the port. It is one of India's worst ever naval accidents. That submarine was bought from Russia in 1997. In 2010 it had been sent to Russia and refitted with Russian cruise missiles. Investigators say it may have been the weapons on board, possibly those missiles, that exploded causing the disaster. There are nine more 'Kilo-class' submarines like that one which India bought from Russia. The Indian government has now been forced to review its safety systems on board all of them.

Russia's submarine woes don't end there. In November 2008 the fire extinguishing system on the Russian submarine Nerpa went off as it was doing sea trials. Compartments on board were flooded with deadly gas, killing twenty. Despite the catastrophe that submarine has since been leased and then commissioned into the Indian Navy as INS Chakra.

But the greatest tragedy of them all since the collapse of the Soviet Union was on the Russian submarine Kursk. In August 2000 explosions on board sank the Kursk in the Barent's sea. Those of the 118 crew not killed by the explosions had time to write notes before the oxygen ran out. All the while the Russian government of then new President Vladimir Putin refused help from other countries which might have saved them. The criticism of Putin, who stayed on holiday in the south of Russia and said nothing to a distraught Russian people for five days as the horror of the Kursk catastrophe unfolded, was vociferous and remains to this day.

All of these accidents have occurred since the year 2000 making Russia's public record on submarine technical safety one of the world's worst.   

Lets go back to those nuclear weapons and missiles, the one's Russia prides itself on above all. In November 2011 then Chief of the Russian General Staff Nikolai Makarov announced that,"I do not rule out local and regional armed conflicts developing into a large-scale war, including using nuclear weapons." That sabre rattling was directed at Europe, the US and NATO.

Except that Russia may not have as much firepower as it thinks. On September the 6th the much hyped 'Bulava' submarine launched ballistic missile (yes we're back to submarines again), made to carry ten nuclear warheads, failed a test launch….again. That's eight times out of at least nineteen launches of the Bulava that the missile has fallen out of the sky, as this one did, or variously been declared a flop. The Russian military maintains the Bulava is the only way to update Russia's nuclear submarines, and of course takes for granted that they must be updated. There is no debate about even the possibility of perhaps not keeping up those huge numbers of expensive nuclear missiles. Instead it's back to the manufacturer once again for more testing. 

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Sobyanin's works frenzy- Maddening and endangering Muscovites before the mayoral election

Take a look at the video and picture above. It's of Bolshaya Dmitrovka street right in the heart of Moscow. The Kremlin and the Bolshoi Theatre are a few minutes walk away. It's full of tourists and Muscovites alike, either rushing to and from work or meandering while seeing the sights. Or at least they are trying to, because this street is now absolute chaos, and a potential death trap.

As one walks down it there is no special pavement for pedestrians. They have to pick their way through rubble, shunting lorries, swinging digger buckets and pneumatic drills. It's a wonder someone hasn't been maimed or killed. The workers seem to be in a terrible hurry. There has been no thought given to even the most basic public health and safety. It seems they are desperately trying to finish the pedestrianisation of the street as quickly as possible. Want to know why?

Ask Sergei Sobyanin, incumbent Moscow mayoral candidate. Opposing him is main contender Alexey Navalny then Sergey Mitrokhin, Ivan Melnikov, Nikolai Levichev and Mikhail Degtyaryov. But none of his opponents have the resources at their command that he does. He's chosen to start what Muscovites are derisively calling a 'Pharaoh's building programme'. I'm sure he hopes it will win him votes. But as you can see from the picture above it is frustrating and endangering the lives of people in the city. The timing of the projects are atrocious. Who would want to start works like this at the height of the tourist season, in the middle of summer? Sobyanin would, and presumably because he wants them finished before the election on the 8th of September. I've seen diggers blasting their horns or slamming on their brakes next to pedestrians trying desperately to navigate the last disappearing slivers of asphalt. Such is the abandonment of any pretence of health and safety in the rush to finish the new street that pedestrians on and around it are at very real risk of injury or death. That would be a perfect PR gift for the mayor's opponents. 

All over Moscow roads are being torn up and re-laid at a newly furious pace. As screaming drivers are driven out of the their minds by traffic jams in places they would never normally be they shout that the roads were fine before. Why are they being done now and with such illogical haste? Why indeed. 

Floods in southern Russia- Some justice for Krymsk victims at last?

Many of Krymsk's houses collapsed under the weight of the water and many of the dead were asleep inside, unwarned and unable to get out in time.

It was the night of the 6th July 2012 in the small town of Krymsk near the black sea. As locals slept there and in nearby areas in Russia's southern Krasnodar region they were unaware of flash flood waters surging toward the town. Six months worth of rain had fallen in one night. They would have had a better chance if the local authorities, who knew what was happening hours before the surge hit, had warned them properly. 

As it was a virtual tidal wave smashed into the unsuspecting town. More than 170 people drowned as the waters rose in minutes. Terrified survivors fought for their lives as their houses collapsed around them, clinging to fences or any debris that managed to stay standing as the deluge flipped cars over in the streets and filled properties with trees and debris. I was one of the first outside journalists to arrive in the wreckage of Krymsk. Bodies lay in the streets and aid was slow to arrive, enraging the distraught locals. There was no electricity and very little edible food or water left. At the town's mortuary, unusable in the blackout, bodies had to be stacked in refrigerated supermarket lorries.

What had formerly been someone's bedroom.

What most angered the people of Krymsk and the surrounding area was that this gut wrenching tragedy was an avoidable one. 

Over a year later some justice has finally been seen to be done for the bereaved and angry residents of Krymsk. Four local officials have been found guilty of criminal negligence for their failure to warn people on that terrible night. Vasily Krutko, former head of the district administration, Vladimir Ulanovsky, former Krymsk mayor, Victor Zhdanov, head of the district emergencies and civil defence department and Irina Ryabchenko, former head of the Nizhnebakamsk local administration were all convicted of negligence. 

But their crimes are greater even than that. Krutko, Ulanovsky and Ryabchenko have also been found guilty of hurriedly forging documents after the flood, lying that they had adhered to proper practice and warned people in time. Zhdanov was also found guilty of stealing compensation money meant for victim's families. 

Three of the defendants deny their guilt, only Krutko accepted it. Prosecutors have asked the court for sentences of six, four and a half, and three and half years imprisonment for Krutko, Zhdanov and Ulanovsky respectively and a suspended sentence of three and half years imprisonment for Ryabchenko. 

Another defendant, Nadezhda Kurochkina has made a guilty plea bargain in a separate trial. She was head of the Prigorodny settlement in the area and is on trial for negligence and forgery.

The bloated faces of unidentified victims are posted up as bodies are carried out refrigerated supermarket lorries to be placed in coffins.
However one figure is conspicuous by his absence in the doling out of punishment. Alexei Tkachyov, the regional governor and a man heavily involved in the allegedly corrupt Sochi winter Olympics plans, visited the shocked and betrayed residents shortly after they had just learned that his administration could have saved them from this catastrophe. 

All this time later, as the verdicts were announced, a spokesman for Russia's Investigative Committee said, "The people were defenceless not only from the elements but, as the investigation has discovered, also from bureaucratic indifference." 

Back then, as Alexei Tkachyov stood in front of a furious crowd in a Krymsk town square they yelled questions about why they weren't warned. He yelled back at them, "what did you expect us to do! Go door to door!" Yes was the answer. Yes that is precisely what you should have done, as Mr Tkachyov and the deadly complacency and corruption of Krasnodar's authorities was drowned out by the shouting of a people who felt utterly betrayed.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Thumbnail- A car crash in Moscow there and gone

A car and a motorcycle have crashed. There is oil and wiper fluid across one of Moscow's badly surfaced roads. On the grass lies the motorbike driver. I don't know if he is dead or just hurt. An ambulance turned up shortly after I took this picture.

And half an hour later, nothing. A snapshot of life and catastrophe, unfolding then swept away like a crisp packet on a dusty city wind.  No one passing this spot now would ever know what had happened here such a short time before. The drama, the tension; a little tragedy among millions casting a fleeting shadow over some forgotten road bend. But I was there. I saw.

More flooding expected in northern China and far eastern Russia

The first reports came in around Wednesday the 7th of August. Massive flooding had hit northern China and far eastern Russia in areas surrounding the Heilongjiang River (known as the Amur river in Russia). Thirty settlements were evacuated as the Zeiskaya hydropower plant discharged huge amounts of water to prevent it from being overwhelmed. A state of emergency was declared in several Russian regions as rivers burst their banks and sixteen settlements were flooded. Thousands were evacuated as roads were washed away, necessitating boats and local army units to bring supplies in and people out.

In northern China it's been called the worst flooding in decades. Four people have already died there with thousands evacuated. More water is expected in the coming days, sweeping down the Heilongjiang river along the border with China and Russia and then flowing north into Russia's Khabarovsk region.

One of the biggest problems in Russia will be paying for the cleanup. A Deputy Finance Minister has already admitted that Russia's reserve fund equivalent to $300 million for 2013 has already been used up. They may, he admitted, have to raid the 2014 fund to pay for the cleanup. The damage in Russia is so far estimated at around $30 million.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Thumbnail- A quick haul from the shopping mall

A women carries her child, in pram, across train tracks. It's one of the only routes to one of Moscow's largest shopping centres approaching from the north. There are three tracks to cross with no footbridge, underpass or walkway.