Copy and Paste: Gitex news and repeating the same message

I used to joke with a good friend of mine who works as a journalist that companies would often recycle news year after year during the region’s largest technology exhibition. I’d tell him that firms would simply change the date of the previous year’s press release and joke that maybe he’d do the same.

I was reading over one news piece from Dubai Airport Free Zone (DAFZA) during this year’s GITEX. The piece, which I’m pasting below and which is linked to here, is on the launch of the organization’s first official mobile application.

DAFZA launches its first mobile application, in 2013

DAFZA launches its first mobile application, in 2013

I thought I’d seen the news before, so obviously I asked Google. And what did I find?

DAFZA launches its first mobile application news, from GITEX 2011

DAFZA launches its first mobile application news, from GITEX 2011

Copy and paste anyone?

The UAE, Egypt and the dangers of an open bias among media

How can a journalist consider him or herself a professional after openly declaring a media bias? (image source:

There’s few proverbs which would sum up today’s Middle East more than “may you live in interesting times”. Unfortunately as we are discovering over and over again, that Chinese proverb is not a blessing but rather a curse. When I look at Egypt over the past couple of weeks I would have thought I was watching a Ramadan-season tragi-comedy rather than real life events. The situation is desperate; the sense of hurt and anger is palpable on all sides of what is now a conflict between two opposing forces.

Generally speaking, the media in Egypt is also becoming more polarized. Most media outlets in the region are owned either directly or indirectly by the government or by groups and individuals with a specific agenda. Even those media who don’t have a particular bias still have to self-censor for fear of crossing a red line. However, it’s rare for a (supposed) journalist or media group to come out and openly show a bias.

Two incidents made the headlines this week in the UAE. The first, and the most brazen, was an announcement of a one million Egyptian pound (US$143,000) bounty for information leading to the capture of three Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt. The pledge was made by an Emirati columnist named Hamad Al Mazroui through Twitter (Hamad has been called a journalist but he write columns rather than factual reporting).

This bizarre event was followed by a statement published by the UAE Writers Association in which it stated that “it is against the attempts of the Brotherhood to manipulate the tolerant image of Egypt and moderation.” The statement, which was first published on the country’s national newswire, reiterated the UAE Writers Association’s support for the Egyptian Writers Union, which has listed the Brotherhood in the terrorism list. The Association also commended the UAE’s unwavering support to Egypt.

I have few illusions about national media being influenced by their respective governments’ policies. However, the aim of journalists should be to report the facts and then provide analysis. Research by Gallup has shown that public trust in the media is highest when the media shows no bias; the opposite is true when there is an open bias.

Do such actions help to resolve the situation in another country? Do they help us to understand what is happening on the ground? And do they promote a sense of trust in media outlets here when reporting or commenting on the situation in Egypt? Journalism comes with responsibilities to report and analyse in a manner that is balanced and removed from prejudice. Let’s have more of this please, and less of an no open bias.

Was Alwaleed’s decision to take on Forbes the right one?

Will Alwaleed make up with Forbes or will this fake front cover be the closest he gets to being featured positively in the magazine again? (picture credit: Forbes)

In terms of Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, they don’t come much bigger than Alwaleed Bin Talal Al Saud. The ‘Rainbow Prince’ and grandson of the founder of the state of Saudi Arabia, is one of the world’s richest men. But recently his fortunes have taken a tumble. The Prince has taken offense to Forbes magazine this year during the publication’s compiling of its annual Rich List. The publication, which is the leading authority on the world’s richest people, has been accused of libel by Alwaleed over a claim that it underestimated his fortune by $9.6bn through stock market manipulations of his publicly-listed company Kingdom Holding.

Alwaleed, who’s often named the richest businessman in the Middle East, has made his anger with Forbes well-known to the media through a decision to take Forbes to the high court in London. His legal counsel has filed a defamation claim against the Forbes publisher, Forbes editor Randall Lane and two Forbes journalists for undermining his name. The prince insists that he’s worth closer to $30 billion, which would take him from the 26th richest person on the Forbes Rich List to a ranking within the top ten.

“The basis for actively pursuing a legal action against Forbes would not be about ranking on some list or personal wealth, it is about correcting seriously defamatory comments that have been made about HRH Prince Alwaleed as an individual and Kingdom Holding Company.”

While the prince has played his hand, the question is was this the right reaction? Was bringing everything to the surface the best action Alwaleed could have taken? Forbes initially responded to Alwaleed’s anger the same way that most top-tier publications do, by rebuking his claims through a research-based argument. Below are some excerpts from the feature.

“That [Forbes] list is how he wants the world to judge his success or his stature,” says one of the prince’s former lieutenants, who, like almost all his ex-colleagues, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal from the Arab world’s richest man. “It’s a very big thing for him.” Various thresholds–a top 20 or top 10 position–are stated goals in the palace, these ex-employees say.

Forbes ran down a whole history of its dealings with Alwaleed in relation to the Rich List and the excerpts below don’t paint the prince in a good light (as one may expect following such a fall-out).

“That [first] outreach [to Forbes] proved to be the first in what is now a quarter-century of intermittent lobbying, cajoling and threatening when it comes to his net worth listing. Of the 1,426 billionaires on our list, not one–not even the vainglorious Donald Trump–goes to greater measure to try to affect his or her ranking.

In 2006 when FORBES estimated that the prince was actually worth $7 billion less than he said he was, he called me at home the day after the list was released, sounding nearly in tears. “What do you want?” he pleaded, offering up his private banker in Switzerland. “Tell me what you need.” Several years ago he had Kingdom Holding’s chief financial officer fly from Riyadh to New York a few weeks before the list came out to ensure that FORBES used his stated numbers. The CFO and a companion said they were not to leave the editor’s office until that commitment was secured.”

As can be expected, when you take on a global publication and accuse it of lies, that publication isn’t going to take things lightly. Forbes has run subsequent pieces on Alwaleed contradicting his uncle, the King of Saudi Arabia, in an article entitled Is Prince Alwaleed Trying To Undermine The Saudi King? The piece focused on Forbes initial allegations that the stock market was manipulated to suit the valuation of the Alwaleed-owned investment vehicle Kingdom Holding.

In my article about Prince Alwaleed that Forbes published in March, we quote a former employee of Alwaleed’s, who describes the Saudi stock market as follows: “The players are not many. They come in with big funds, and they buy from each other. There are no casinos. It’s the gambling site of the Saudis.”

As the Forbes writer Kerry Dolan notes, stock market manipulation is an issue that the King himself has taken umbrage with. As a journalist in the country, market manipulation of stocks on the Saudi Bourse Tadawal is well-known and many Saudis will openly tell you whom they suspect of manipulating pricing.

Forbes has also published a very classy picture library detailing what it describes as The Fabulous Life of Price Alwaleed Bin Talal AlSaud (It’s an interesting read, but did Forbes have to drop to tabloid level?).

More recent events have also, in my mind, put Alwaleed’s decision to take on Forbes into a different context. The prince has been involved in another civil case in a London court after himself being sued by a Jordanian businesswoman named Daad Sharab who says she was not paid a promised $10 million commission for brokering the sale of a jet owned by Alwaleed to Libya’s former leader Muammar Gaddafi. The following comments were noted during the cross-examination of Alwaleed by Reuters.

[Alwaleed] repeated time and again that the agreement all along had been that Sharab would receive an amount that would be decided “at my discretion”, and she overstepped the mark by asking for $10 million.

“She did not respect the fact that it was my discretion … Discretion means I have all the right to do whatever I want,” Alwaleed said. “When she came with 10 (million dollars) I went to zero.”

These comments prompted Sharab’s lawyer, Clive Freedman, to ask the prince whether his discretion was supposed to be exercised reasonably, or “like the discretion of an absolute ruler who follows his every whim”.

Freedman accused the prince of making up his evidence as he went along and of being a “debt-dodger” who had refused to pay Sharab for years of work on his behalf, giving no reason until forced to by litigation.

The prince said he did not lie, adding that Sharab had understood all along that she would be paid at his discretion and no one had forced her to work for him on those terms.

But Judge Peter Smith expressed surprised at the prince’s defense. “Nobody is going to do business with you if it relies on your discretion and your discretion becomes capricious,” the judge told the prince.

“Your case then is that your discretion entitles you to not pay her anything? I thought you were an honorable man and you wouldn’t take advantage of people in this way,” he said.

The judge said that it would be better for the parties to settle the case out of court, warning that one or both parties were at risk of being branded liars in his judgment. “I cannot believe that’s in the interest of either of you,” he said.

More recently, at the end of June, one of Kingdom Holding’s board members stepped down from his role for personal reasons. While Ahmed Halawani, who led private equity investments for the prince, may have felt it was time to leave Alwaleed after ten years of service, did recent pressures influence his decision?

And finally, there’s the case of another of Alwaleed’s former business partners. Pierre Daher, the CEO of Lebanese television station LBC International, has given several interviews with Dubai-based marketing publications focusing on his fall-out with Alwaleed. The story is another fascinating read, and is well worth your time.

In all of this, the focus shifts from the other party to Alwaleed. The issues of transparency and of trust keep repeating themselves. Who do we believe? Putting out a media statement is a very different thing to taking another party to court. As Alwaleed has already seen himself this summer, a London court is very different from the Middle East.

Alwaleed has excellent media relations in the Middle East, where he’s seldom questioned (Alwaleed owns a minority stake in several media outlets globally and locally, including in the region’s largest publisher Saudi Research and Publishing Group). But was it wise to openly question and then take to court a global title such as Forbes? We will soon see how this plays out, but I for one am looking forward to what should be an explosive trial between Forbes and Alwaleed.

Trials and Tribulations at Abu Dhabi’s The National

The National, Abu Dhabi’s English-language newspaper, hasn’t had a quiet week. First comes a blog post which The National admitted was ‘one of the most controversial ever’ in the paper’s five year history. The blog, which was written by an intern journalist named Ayesha Al-Khoori, was pilloried for its description of her driving habits and speeding even though she herself was attempting to argue that lowering the UAE’s driving minimum driving age from 18 would be a mistake. This blog, which garnered hundreds of responses and mentions on the comments section as well as on social media sites, was followed by an attempt at an apology which for me seemed to miss the point (Ayesha claimed her message was lost, but I’d argue that there was no consistency in her initial message).

For a review of the blog and The National’s editorial guidelines including how it reviews and edits work (which didn’t seem to be the case with Ayesha’s blog) then read this piece by Mita56 which sums everything up nicely.

To top off a bad start to the week, someone made a serious error when writing The National’s daily electronic newsletter (have a shufty below).

Have a look and spot the boo-boo. It's a big one.

Have a look and spot the boo-boo. It’s a big one.

If you didn’t spot the mistake, I’ll give you a hint. The late person referred to in the photo-caption should be the founder of the country (Allah yurhamu) rather than HRH his son who is very much alive and is the President of the United Arab Emirates.

The National has been stung recently by a couple of tell-all pieces by ex-journalists. One of the most recent was Tom OHara, who wrote a warts-and-all account of his two years in Abu Dhabi in the American Journalism Review in December 2012/January 2013. You can read his revealing piece here.

I was at the launch party for The National in 2008 and remember the roster of journalists on display. There was a Pulitzer-prize winner reporting for the paper even. Hopes were high that we’d have a newspaper with the temerity to tell it like it was, which is still a rarity in the Middle East. Over the years I’ve looked forward to reading The National’s copy from a group of journalists whom I have dealt with and whom I think very highly of.

As a former journalist I respect and admire good journalism. In today’s Gulf we need more quality content to explain the why behind the what. My hope is that The National’s management steer the paper back to what it aimed to be five years back, to “establish an institution on par with some of the greatest newspapers in the world.” Trials and tribulations are all well and good (unless you’re the person behind the drama), but The National needs to raise its standards and focus our attention back on the quality of its content. The National, we need you more than ever.

Where does self-censorship begin in the Gulf?

Has much changed in the Gulf? Looking back over the last 12 months, the headlines have rightly been dominated by news of events in Egypt and Syria. On the sidelines, Iran, Israel and Palestine have filled the column inches. In comparison, the Gulf seems to have changed little.

Most of us know to think before we speak. We understand that certain issues may be difficult to discuss during certain occasions. And then there’s self-censorship, the concept of altering the spoken and written word, picture, or other published material out of concern about the consequences.

Having talked to people I admire from the art world, publishing and the online communities there is a concern and fear that the boundaries of expression are shifting. The region’s powers that be are not just watching and listening, but they are also taking action. The number of persons questioned and detained for stating their views or thoughts publicly seems to have increased, and the media coverage surrounding these events has certainly gone up several notches.

So where does that leave those writers, publishers, artists and the like who live in the Gulf? We’ve always had soft censorship in the region’s media, the concept of avoiding sensitive topics to not upset advertisers, the authorities/media owners.

However, today’s conservative wave (it may be even called a tsunami if the levels of monitoring and action pick up pace) following the Arab Spring has come up against an awakening of expression brought about by social media tools. Who will win out?

The question in my mind today is where are the red lines? What should be spoken about and when should one stay silent? And can one censor the web today without unplugging oneself from the internet?

Has there been an increase in self-censorship across the Gulf?

Middle East journalists you must follow – Caryle Murphy @CaryleM

I’ve long thought about and planned to write on journalists who have been based in Saudi Arabia and the wider Gulf and who write about the realities of life in the Arabian Peninsula.

A journalist both by profession and by passion, Caryle Murphy

The first person I’m writing about is a woman I have admired for years and whose reporting is still a lesson to all of us in the media industry on both how to write both objectively and arouse the reader’s interest. Caryle Murphy is a multiple award-winning journalist, author and scholar. She’s devoted herself to her profession and her recognitions, including a Pulitzer, hardly do her talents and impact on the profession justice.

Before I start here’s a brief biography on Caryle from the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars where she was a Middle East Program Public Policy Scholar up until July of this year.

An independent, freelance journalist, Caryle Murphy was a long-time reporter for the Washington Post, covering both domestic and international affairs for the paper. She also is the author of Passion for Islam (Scribner 2002), which explains Islam’s contemporary revival and the roots of religious extremism in the Middle East.

From 2008-2011 she worked in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where she reported for GlobalPost, the Christian Science Monitor, and the National in Abu Dhabi. Murphy has been appointed a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington for the last quarter of 2011.

She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting (1991) and the George Polk Award for Foreign Reporting for her coverage of Iraqi-occupied Kuwait from inside the emirate. She was also a recipient of the Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation and the 1991 Edward Weintal Diplomatic Reporting prize. In 1994-1995, she was the Edward R. Murrow Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

I had the privilege of meeting Caryle for the first time when she moved over to Riyadh in 2008. I’d been at the launch event for the English-language The National newspaper in Abu Dhabi and had been watching a video made by all of their foreign correspondents. The person who stuck out the most was this American blonde lady who had the Faisaliah Tower behind her and confidently proclaimed that she was The National’s Saudi correspondent based in Riyadh.

Intrigued by the thought of an American female reporting from the heart of the Kingdom, I fired off an email to Caryle asking to meet with her. What you’ll first notice about Caryle is how sharp she is as an interviewer. She’ll have done meticulous reading on a subject and she’ll get to the crux of the matter in no time.

Having seen her do numerous interviews I know that Caryle isn’t afraid to ask about any subject, no matter its sensitivity. However, she’ll always be aware of cultural taboos and will frame questions in such a way that her interviewees would not feel offended, insulted, or unable to answer.

During her time in Saudi Caryle has written on women’s rights, the issues surrounding 9/11, religion and state, and the role that tradition plays in this deeply conservative country. For me, what has stood her apart has been the way in which she has crafted her writing, and how she asks questions of her readers. Caryle humanizes a story in a way few others are capable of.

The sad news is that Caryle is no longer based in the Middle East. She’s still writing on the region from the US however. You can follow her on Twitter at @CaryleM and also read her archive of work for The National here. Carlye also has her own website which is but this is undergoing a sprucing up at the moment and so may not be viewable.

However, do check out the below video from the beginning of 2012. Caryle is talking at USC Annenberg School of Journalism about Islam and Saudi Arabia. And if you’re reading this Caryle, I can’t wait to read your next piece of work on the Kingdom and the Middle East!

Are journalists putting too much trust in social media sources?

The internet and digital communication has had a profound effect on the media industry. Media can be distributed globally in a matter of moments, and the ease with which journalists can find sources has been greatly aided by tools such as Twitter. Need a quote? Then search a hashtag on Twitter or for a blog via Google and find a credible source.

There’s no denying that social and digital media are shaping how journalists work. Rather than quoting in the traditional sense, news articles reference tweets.

There are risks in referring to sources in this manner. Can you trust that they person is who they say they are? Do they really represent those who they claim to be talking on behalf of? Do they know the subject well enough to be viewed as a credible source?

I can imagine that the Arab Spring has been both exciting and infuriating for media. Many countries have not taken too kindly to media entering their borders and reporting on goings-on. There have been some groundbreaking stories coming out of Syria in particular, with journalists putting themselves in harms way to report on the ground.

And then there has been instances of deception. The worst was the case of the Gay Girl in Damascus, who went from being a global source on what was going on in Syria through her blog to…

… an American graduate student named Tom MacMaster who was studying in Scotland.

The hoax may be the worst case example of what can go wrong when using online media for references. What concerns me more is when journalists and media outlets source speakers online. Unless they’re careful, the people who end up becoming the witnesses or the quoted experts are those with the biggest following online.

Of course, this doesn’t just happen online. I was listening to a post on the BBC World a week ago and heard a report about the first Saudi female Olympians. The person being interviewed was a female Saudi journalist residing in New York.

As I sat listening to the report, I could not help but ask myself why was the BBC interviewing a person sitting thousands of miles away from the country under focus. Would this person hold a mainstream opinion? Even some of her facts which she used to corroborate her arguments were flimsy (for example, she said there are no female gyms in Saudi Arabia, which is false).

Being a good journalist is one of the hardest jobs out there, especially in the Middle East where people can often be reticent around media and yet the editor still wants the story filed ASAP. However, I would like to ask my friends in the media to think before they quote from online, and ask themselves if they’re background checking that person, if they need to quote the same person for the Xth time, and if they should quote from online sources when alternatives are available.

Muck Rack and monitoring media on #Twitter and Social Media cc@muckrack

Forgive the name. Muck Rack isn’t probably what you think. If you’re a comms professional and you frequently use Twitter (or other social media tools) to both monitor and reach out to journalists then this web-based application will be ideal for you.

So what does Muck Rack do? Essentially Muck Rack tracks what journalists are saying about the top news of the moment across a range of . A subscription version monitors what journalists are saying about any given topic and sends real-time press alerts to subscribers based on options such as keywords used.

Muck Rack’s set-up and operating model aims to ensure that only journalists are monitored – journalists are vetted manually before being added to Muck Rack’s monitoring lists (if I’m wrong Muck Rack then please do correct me on this one). To quote Muck Rack, “by verifying the journalists on social media who do the muckraking for major media outlets and analyzing what they say in real time, Muck Rack delivers a glimpse of tomorrow’s newspaper to you today.”

Muck Rack claims to list thousands of journalists on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Quora, Google+, LinkedIn and more. Apart from Al Jazeera English most would appear to be based in the US and Europe (you can see a full listing here), and I don’t have details as to how many are in emerging markets such as the Middle East. Plus, I’m still not sure if languages other than those based on the Roman alphabet are catered to.

Muck Rack has a handy daily email service which will analyze what journalists are saying on a variety of topics which is also free to sign up for and can be accessed from here. The good news for hacks is that if you’re a journalist you can avail of the paid-for service for free. Communications and PR professionals will have to pay.

The service starts at 99 dollars a month and includes a license for one user, the ability to create three media lists and alerts, a power search function, and access to the journalist directory.

There’s probably much more I should be saying about this service, but so far it seems to be very handy for reaching out to media online. Muck Rack also writes a helpful blog which is worth a read.

For those curious people out there here’s a screen shot of how Muck Rack works when searching for trending topics. The below was analysis of messaging on the issue of Twitter suspending journalist Guy Adams for posting NBC chief’s email address.

A snapshot of reporting from Muck Rack on a trending topic taken from a WSJ blog

How to defuse a crisis at a Gulf-based telco? Tell the journalist there’s no story.

I love talking to journalists. They’re often witty, sometimes charming. One thing that journalists have an abundance of are stories and anecdotes. I’ve dealt with one Gulf-based telecommunications firm for a couple of reasons of late, and it’s a fascinating company due to internal issues and ambitions. However, this firm has faced accusations of poor customer service in its home market. Consumer anger recently came to a head with calls for a symbolic, hour-long boycott of the company’s products and services.

I’m not going to name the firm, but if you do a search on Google you won’t have to search long and hard for the story or its context.

While this in itself is an interesting development, the mark of a good communications team will be able to step in, work with journalists and bring out the positive of any negative story. This didn’t happen to one journalist colleague who inquired about the boycott. An experienced reporter on a global title, she emailed a PR executive at a public relations firm representing the telco asking about the boycott.

The response was abysmal. Rather than talking through the issue, explain the company’s attempts to improve its customer service and put right the company’s standing amongst its customers the PR executive pulled his face and told the journalist there was no story.

Telling a journalist those three words – there’s no story – is akin to holding up a red rag to a bull. Following on from this faux pas the executive then started to vent his belief (off the record) that the competition was behind the boycott.
Needless to say, despite his best efforts he failed to put over to the journalist anything remotely useful that would have conveyed how much his client were investing in time and money into their customer service.

What happened? An article in a global business title which prominently featured comments from those spearheading the boycott and a single quote from the company in question. That story was syndicated both regionally and globally. This company has operations in 17 countries and ambitions to operate telecommunications networks in many more locations.

The damage done to the firm’s reputation can’t be measured. However, there’s always time to put right what has been done. Get in touch with the journalist, show them that the company cares, that it aims to redouble its efforts. Even if the journalist doesn’t write a follow-up story you’ve left a positive impression.

To date has there been any follow-up? Unfortunately not. But then again, who needs good communications and media outreach when you’re a government-owned firm with a sizable marketing budget and only one competitor in your home market? Do you really want to have a frank and open dialogue with the media and your customers? Or are you happy with being subjected to boycott campaigns simply because you don’t want to listen and you think there’s no story? How you defuse the situation is your choice.