Thursday, November 26, 2009

The joys of working in a garret

Ah, the joys of a writer's life. My new office is a space inside a Georgian building ... lovely wooden floors, an old fireplace and view over the ancient rooftops of a British city.

I've also got no central heating, frozen feet and due to my 'agreement' with the boss here, got no landline phone, no internet except a 'dongle' and am not even allowed to borrow a box without sending the poor fellow into a spasm of angst and apoplexy. Just for fun I even pay him for the privilege of using an otherwise-empty space!

I spend my life in roofspaces, wondering how I can create meaningful prose and stories which will be of some benefit to the rest of humanity. Meanwhile the garret is a most appropriate metaphor for the writer's life, too: starving and railing against the world ... (laughs).

p.s. my garret is not as nice as the one in the picture

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Tyranny of the Amazon review

Most authors will appreciate where I come from with this. You slave God-knows-how-many-hours, weeks, months (years) on a book. Probably in your spare time, whilst still earning a "regular" living. You finally get an agent, then a publisher interested, after numerous re-drafts of your pitch, your content and -- in my case -- paying thousands of £/$ for flight costs, hotels and research *out of your own pocket*.

You then (in my case, for the book Homeland) have to hire your own editor, because your publisher refuses/cannot (apparently) afford the time/resources/unpaid intern to actually edit your work. You try your best, with the limited cash (overdraft) you have available, to put out as good a work as you can. You stand back, exhausted, and marvel it has come this far. You've given birth to something unique, that doesn't simply parrot what's already out there; which is not a celeb ghostwritten piece of crap; and which you also have to have extensively checked by researchers and legal sources to ensure no libel.

Then the fear sets in.

What if no-one will notice the book when it comes out? Will it lead to more work? Has it been worth the slog, the damage to your relationships, the stress, the threats passed your way (how many times have Internet weirdoes and sad violent guys sought to have me followed ...) -- and will it be properly reviewed?

You then (if lucky) get your two week window of fame. The PR ladies at the publisher get you interviews on a few radio stations; you try and get on Richard and Judy, just missing it (too intellectual/not enough undercover violence!); you pen articles; pay for your own internet ad campaign (Google); and generally stick another huge amount of effort into getting it noticed. The reviewers (who, after local radio stations, are more or less the only people your publisher has to ensure *any* marketing at all) then ignore/maul/promise to review (but don't)/or sometimes give nice reviews to your work. I could debate the quality of professional reviewers -- I'm one myself -- let's just say there are some very good ones, and then there are those like the ladies who go on to Radio 4 and write in The Times, who clearly don't read the entire thing and give some liberal hogwash opinion which says more about their own worldview and prejudices than your own work. Time and time again I could tell who had, and had not, read the work by the tone of their comments. It is why when I review, if I don't like something I substantiate it, or give the writer the benefit of the doubt ("it's not to my taste, but I can see x y z liking it").

Be fair is my guiding principle.

But then all goes quiet. If you don't have a weekly column, face on Newsnight Review, making documentaries or generally some other "star" quality, your tome disappears among the 120,000+ published each year. Your publisher has no budget left to market and is already promoting the next work which, unbelievably, has almost the same title as your own yet is concocted trash. The publisher has no budget to promote your work each time something occurs in the news. The big fat obvious truth is that you're on your own. You're a one man band and need to promote that work yourself. In fact, if you could hire a printers and do deals with vendors, you could probably sell it almost as well as they can. That just leaves Amazon.

Amazon operates a readers' review system: people give stars and comments, from 1-5 (1 = bad, 5 = good). Many writers try and stuff their friends in, awarding suspicious 5 stars. But as time goes on, you're left with -- as my old GMTV friends called it - "the nuts and sluts". Having written a book on the extreme Right, I only get white supremacist nutters coming along these days. They uniformly give the work 1 star, which clearly has less to do with any writing or research quality (or even if they fully read it), more to do with their own obvious bias and political views.

I don't object to people not liking something, but I do object to liars, falsehoods and slander. Left at the mercy of these half-hinged cranks, every future reader sees such comments and is left with a plethora of negative reviews which they may, just may, think are fair and accurate comments. Like I said, as a professional reviewer I rarely stoop to such lows and underhand tactics, even if I really don't like something.

But if publishers aren't paying for marketing, and the author is relying on word of mouth, the tyranny of Amazon represents a powerful force in all future sales. And it is those who "shout" loudest on the Internet that, sadly, seem to get heard.

(In the interests of fairness, you can see some examples of this "he who shouts loudest" from the reviews on my page. Note that the lead "negative" reviewer is a self-proclaimed UFO expert ... How come Jon Ronson gets to stare at goats and they love him, whilst my chaps just hate me ... ^^)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Life after Death Row

Great story from The Guardian about the freed Death Row prisoners in the States and their campaigns for justice.

Death-row survivor John Thompson is angry, but not bitter. Which is remarkable, given that the prosecutor in his original trial for murder in 1984 deliberately withheld evidence that proved he was innocent. "I'm angry," he says, "because that man was trying to murder me. He knew I did not commit that crime, had the evidence to prove it, but it made no difference. He was going to have me killed in the chair to further his own career." Of all the cases of death-row prisoners who have been exonerated in recent years, Thompson's is one of the most troubling. Jerry Deagan, the prosecutor in question, only confessed that he had concealed the blood evidence that would have absolved Thompson when he found he was dying of liver cancer, 11 years after Thompson's conviction. In an attempt to clear his conscience, Deagan told his colleague, Mike Riehlmann, what he had done.
But even when Deagan died, it was almost five years before Riehlmann came clean and earned a brief suspension from Louisiana's Supreme Court for his "inaction". After 14 years on death row and seven execution dates, Thompson was given a retrial in 2004. The jury took just a few minutes to acquit him, and later he walked out of Louisiana's Angola State prison with just $10 in his pocket for his trouble. Now he campaigns against the death penalty. And not just for those who might be innocent. "There is nothing about justice in death penalty cases in the US," he told me at the annual conference of Lifelines (, the organisation that arranges pen-friends for those on death row, where he and I were guest speakers. "It's all about votes and careers."
He opened his briefcase and took out a large photograph of a burly-looking man wearing gold-rimmed spectacles. The man, Jim Williams, was the senior prosecutor who oversaw Thompson's original trial. In the picture, Williams wears a look of pride and stands behind a large desk, upon which stands a small model of an electric chair. Attached to the chair are the photographs of five black men. Thompson's picture, in the centre, is the largest. "He was especially proud to send me to the chair," says Thompson, "and it was all based on lies."

Here's a link to John Thomspon's site and new work, helping to rehabilitate prisoners.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Vote for editor of 'The Journalist'

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) is voting in a new editor of its house magazine, The Journalist, shortly. If some of the discussion I've seen are anything to go by, passions about the role - and about journalism, its future and future of the NUJ - are running high.

The nice folks over at are hosting debates and information about the candidates, so worth checking them out.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Governments using journalists to spy

A dangerous precedent is being set. Governments around the world are using journalists -- or 'fake' journalists -- to gain access to movements they consider a threat, then using those journalists to either spy on or (if they're disguised police officers) to arrest people.

It's happening in Nepal, Israel and Canada, to name just a few places. And it's got journalists around the world pretty riled up: for if people can't trust us (as little as they do now), how will we get to report on stories if everyone suspects we're working for the police or intelligence units? It's bad enough with some of the conspiracy-minded people I talk to, who seem to believe they're being bugged from the lamposts and that the "Zionists" are out to get them; think how much worse it could get if governments routinely used us as a cover to infiltrate others.


IFEX reports

The Nepali government intends to use journalists as informants as part of a security plan, report ARTICLE 19 and the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ), a decision that would undermine the role of independent media and increase attacks on journalists. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) reports that Israeli security forces
were disguised as photojournalists in the midst of a demonstration on 8 and 9 October and arrested protesters.

This issue is not reported frequently and it is difficult to prove the practice takes place, says Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE). CJFE last documented a case of a police officer in Canada impersonating a journalist in order to have greater access to a protest in 2008.

According to ARTICLE 19 and FNJ, the use of Nepali informants as security informants is a breach of the code of conduct issued by the Nepali Press Council. ARTICLE 19, the FNJ, and another Nepali group, Freedom Forum, have called on Nepali authorities to remove any proposal to use journalists as spies and to ensure the safety and security of journalists.

"The Government's plan is opportunistic and irresponsible," said FNJ Chair Dharmendra Jha. "Threats and attacks against, and even murder of journalists are rampant in Nepal and to propose to use journalists as informants is at best grossly negligent."

In Jerusalem, Israeli security forces posed as photojournalists by carrying cameras and dressing like Palestinians, reports MADA. They arrested several young protestors at a demonstration last week against Israeli practices regarding Al Aqsa Mosque. MADA comments that this is a violation of international laws and charters and endangers the lives of journalists.

Previously in Canada, a police officer pretended to be a journalist at a Mohawk rally in conjunction with the Aboriginal Day of Protest in 2007. CJFE comments that this practice undermines the media's position as an independent third party, threatening reporters' safety and ability to access stories and sources. Police pretending to be journalists threatens free press as it creates an environment where citizens cannot trust that those who identify themselves as journalists truly are journalists. Police
action has "chilled" potential sources, says CJFE.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Fred of The Philippines

Photo: Ermita, the "sin city" of Manila

I just discovered this story of mine during an office clearout. I decided to type it up again: it ain't hopeful but it is 'real'. And most of all, it is true.



I first met Fred in a brothel*. He had a woman on either side of him, laughing and chatting away in Tagalog, the Manilan language. They eyed each other nervously whenever his coarse and frequent laughter disturbed the other patrons and caused them to turn and stare. None of us knew his background but his clown-like face, all furrows and bulbous nose, looked lonely, weary and afraid, even then. He looked like someone’s grandpa gone astray, turning up white-haired and inappropriate in one of the sin capitals of the world.

I got to know Fred pretty well during my three months in The Philippines. We’d meet up in some provincial centre, all the travellers gathered in the same bar or hotel that the guidebook promised would be deserted, and talk about England. His England. I’ve been to pre-war Fulham whilst gambling in the boiler room of a steamship and worked with the lads down at Peckham sorting office, sitting on a tiny tropical island. I probably travelled more with his words than my own feet.

Looking at the spreading web of his tattoos depressed me. It spoke of lost opportunities. His hands and body didn’t move much, just kind of collapsed inwards to eventually protrude in a fragile beer gut. But his eyes were alive with vitriol and longing to live. He knew he didn’t have that long, that was apparent in his bitter and sarcastic talk about friends and family deserting him over the years. I think that Fred must be one of the loneliest people I’ve ever met. He was 79 when I last saw him.

I often asked him why’d he’d put to the road so late in life. In his sober moments, which were few, he told me.

As the youngest of four children, he’d been reared by his mother and sisters in a Fulham (west London) terrace. Their father deserted them before Fred reached his teens. His stepfather beat him. He left school at 14 to do a variety of jobs, never settling and never sticking at anything for a length of time. He blamed it on The Depression.

The War changed his life. Or so he said. He’d never travelled further than Bognor Regis (an English seaside town) and now “some bastard in Whitehall” had sent him to join the 14th Army in India and Burma. The Forgotten Army. They were abandoned with their half-competent officers, more concerned with observing the rigours of protocol than the health and well-being of their men.

He’d been sent to guard temples where teenage girls, sold by their parents, were lowered kicking and screaming onto a hallowed spike, symbolically removing their virginity and consecrating them to a secretive caste of prostitutes. He vividly described the sight of their bright garlands spattered with blood, silken robes parting over twisted, brown flesh. After this he considered all Indians, and most Asians, to be “animals”. The irony of our Philippines surroundings seemed lost on him.

He deserted after a couple of years. The situation was forced on him, he said, by 2,000 Japanese soldiers “running down me bloody throat”. He’d been based in the Burmese jungle when a naked white woman ran into his camp and began babbling, in a Glaswegian accent, that the Japanese were advancing only a couple of miles away (she, by the way, had been an anthropology student who’d installed herself as the leader of the tribe she’d come to study).

“Them fucking officers” ordered her to be arrested because she’d entered their mess, off-limits to anyone below the rank of Second Lieutenant or, for that matter, a civilian. Fred and his mates fled when several hundred tribesmen surrounded their superiors and held them until the Japanese arrived.

He’d been fleeing from himself ever since. As a postman back in Peckham, he’d spent the next 30 years in four unhappy marriages. Fred’s charm did not lie with women (he was robbed twice by prostitutes and charged at least double for their services during the times I met him in The Philippines) and he’d managed to alienate his only daughter.

Postwar England had obviously not brought happiness or fulfillment. He was pensioned off to live in a high-rise flat somewhere in his native Fulham, griping about Maggie Thatcher and femalekind in general to a cold and silent audience. After five years he set off to travel the world, scraping together the savings he had left and vowing, he told me, never to return. He’d been more places in those few years than I’d been in my entire life.

I sat and watched this incongruous figure, spindly legs jutting from beneath fake Fred Perry shorts, and failed to imagine him as a young man. That pained me because I felt I was doing an injustice to his memories. His lips quivered and he frothed everso slightly at the mouth, a broken old man reliving an alien youth. He talked too much. My companions – a motley assortment of minor drug dealers, Norwegian runaways and a hotelier-in-training – laughed and took the piss. Fred would halt his tale and join in with them.

He hadn’t escaped the sorrow of his life by travelling. He was still unsettled. This was the impression you had talking to him, an old man reeling drunk on San Miguel beer and bitter memories. At those times he would begin swearing at everyone around him, the Filippinos, prostitutes and us. He didn’t seem to care, perhaps because he’d lost all he had already. It embarrassed me to see him like this.

I doubt that Fred is still alive. I hope that he isn’t because his weariness and despair I found painful to witness. I shall strive to make my life a success in memory of that man and hope that wherever he is now, he rests in peace.

* Ed note: Most of the bars for the backpackers were also brothels.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Frank Deasy: A great man passes away

Back in 2000 I was called into the bowels of the BBC to discuss a possible play about the Far Right. The BBC hadn't produced anything on this are for over a decade. We didn't have much of an idea, then, of what to do: I was in the midst of writing my book HOMELAND and Ruth Caleb, the producer, was looking for a screenwriter to turn my research into riveting viewing.

We slowly interviewed a succession of writers: those well-established, others who were little more than cab drivers with a desire to hit the big screen. Then we met Frank.

In walked this taciturn, brooding figure; a monk-like man with deep brow, a thinker's face and thoughtful expression. There was an intensity there, behind the measured-but-strong Dublin accent. He wouldn't talk about his childhood, that was quickly off-limits after I asked about his background. Apparently he had a reputation for being difficult to deal with – he even warned me that, most likely, we would fall out during the process of filming and making this drama (we did, but only for a short while) – but mostly it was fascinating to work with him. He'd written a brilliant TV series called Looking After Jo-Jo, starring Robert Carlyle, which was set among the drug dealers of a Glasgow housing estate.

I took Frank to the British National Party's 'Red White and Blue' annual festival (something they had copied off their big brother, the Front National in France); then to the East End to meet BNP people; we even ended up outside the house of an infamous Combat 18 member in south-east London. Through many months and script revisions, the drama 'England Expects' (directed by Tony Smith) was born. It was while staying in Welshpool, near BNP leader Nick Griffin's smallholding, that I learned of Frank's troubled past: he searched high and low for a local AA group, which he felt he needed to attend. (Inadvertently I'd asked him if he wanted to join me in the hotel bar for a beer.) He hinted even then about the health worries troubling him.

I watched Frank's other work appear on the screens in the following five years: an Emmy-winning Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren; The Passion, his tale of Jesus' life, and death; he had co-written an unseen Hollywood film Prozac Nation, made on a book of the same name (and which he hinted had been riven with troubles); and worked on many other superlative dramas. Sadly I only recently learned of the liver cancer that was to contribute to his death on 17 September this year. We swapped an email only the day before, after friends told me about Frank's poignant writing of his condition – waiting for a liver transplant, for which he had a rare blood type – in The Observer newspaper. It led to him doing an hour-long radio show with RTE in Ireland; thousands of letters poured in to the newspapers in support of his and others' plights.

Frank's email to me of 16 September read: "Thanks Nick – we live in hope ay?" I replied later that evening, not realising he was already in the life and death operation to transplant his liver, and which he hoped would give him a new lease of life. Instead it robbed him of that life – he died on the operating table – and his wife, Marie, and three children are now left without a father.

Frank Deasy was a rare man: principled, gifted, honorable. I was glad, in the end, to have known him.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Ponzis, Dying & Mercenaries

Updated here is a roundup of my latest stories. Several are part of larger projects or available for resale, and I hope they make for interesting reading.

1) Follow The Money. October 2009: Wired (UK) magazine. In an era of financial scams and Ponzi frauds, it takes cunning, smart thinking (and a little luck) to nail the bad guys. Nick Ryan meets the 'fraud busters', the team which hunts down major-league swindlers from a luxury Caribbean base and recovers millions for victims. Based on my 10-year contact with the hotshot lawyers of Martin Kenney & Co.

2) Living with Dying. August 2009: The Times Magazine (UK). What does it mean to be dying? Nick Ryan followed five people with terminal illness as they journeyed towards the end of life. A major piece for the Times, which took many months and a lot of heartache to put together.

3) Good Heart in Africa. July 2009: The Tablet (UK). Father Kieran Creagh narrowly escaped death in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and more recently in South Africa where he founded Leratong hospice. Nick Ryan meets a man who for many epitomises the essence of priesthood and its sacrifices. (This is merely the intro/taster to part of a much longer project.)

4) Lords of War. Walrus Magazine (Canada). They brave their lives in the shadowy world of mercenary riches, risking all for reward – but what are the dangers today of using so many 'soldiers of fortune' to protect corporate and diplomatic interests? Nick Ryan, who has met many private military and security contractors, looks at their motivations and at the wider industry they inhabit. (Look out for more pieces to come from this area).

5) The Fog of War. April 2009: The National (UAE). Captured fighting alongside the Taliban, a young American Muslim convert, John Walker Lindh, became the United States’ most infamous “enemy combatant” and a potent symbol of betrayal. In a rare interview, Nick Ryan talks to his family, who ask if their son really deserved a 20-year sentence. (John Lindh deserves his freedom, despite many Americans' misguided enmity.)

6) Gold Trading Exposed. March/April 2009: Eurogamer. A major four-part, 12,000 word investigation into the blackmarket world of "gold selling" in virtual video games and online worlds. Includes exclusive interviews with Chinese gold farmers and brokers; as well as revelations such as the huge size of the market ($10bn) and size of the industry (one million employed in China alone).

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV

7) (reprint) Hammering the Rock. 2005: Maxim. One of the most feared gangs in American history faces the ultimate showdown with the authorities – but will it be enough to smash 'The Rock'? Report by Nick Ryan.

8) My Virtual Family. 2009: The BBC. They are the 'Twitter generation'. Couch-potato teenagers, addicted to video games and instant messenging, dangerously cut-off from the outside world. That, at least, is one depressing stereotype painted of today’s youth: we have a disgruntled, alienated generation ignored by its guardians and parents. Yet more and more of us are finding ways to stay in touch with family and loved ones via online game worlds or "MMOs.

Further articles, books, and documentaries currently in development.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Fraudbusters™ revisited

The two men stepped off the long flight from Dublin. The Miami heat washed over them in a second, but they didn't flinch. In their line of work they were well-used to entering harsh climes:

War-torn Liberia, the jungles of Papua New Guinea or a freezing Toronto winter – they went wherever the money trail led them.

The taller and more broad-shouldered of the two had once guarded US Presidents and worked out on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border when the US supported the mujahideen. His companion, shorter and with carefully-buttoned suit and tie, was a forensically-minded lawyer responsible for crossing swords with some of the most tenacious con-men the world had ever seen, sociopaths who would stop at nothing in their avarice. When you heard of names like Bernie Madoff or Sir Allen Stanford, chances are he was on their trail. He had sat across from these criminals as they told him how they lay awake at night, dreaming of ways to kill him.

Meet the world's sharpest fraudbusters.

Follow The Money. October 2009: Wired (UK) magazine.

Photo © Neil Massey.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Grapes of Wrath revisited

It's 70 years since John Steinbeck's seminal Grapes of Wrath (about Depression-era American families moving west) was published.

Here The Guardian's Chris McGreal retraces that journey and finds a series of desolate ghost towns clinging to the famous Route 66.

(I recently went to see a theatre production of the book and it still holds its power, decades since it was written).

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Jack's Death

A moving tribute from a father to his slain only-son, in Afghanistan.

Trooper Jack Sadler was killed in December 2007, when a land mine exploded underneath his army Land Rover in the desert of southern Afghanistan.

At the inquest into the death of the 21-year-old, in July this year, a coroner in Exeter said the government should explain why such light vehicles were used for army reconnaissance patrols.

Hear the audio tribute here.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Iranian boy who defied Tehran hardliners tells of prison rape ordeal

The 15-year-old boy sits weeping in a safehouse in central Iran, broken in body and spirit. Reza will not go outside — he is terrified of being left alone. He says he wants to end his life and it is not hard to understand why: for daring to wear the green wristband of Iran’s opposition he was locked up for 20 days, beaten, raped repeatedly and subjected to the Abu Ghraib-style sexual humiliations and abuse for which the Iranian regime denounced the United States.

“My life is over. I don’t think I can ever recover,” he said, as he recounted his experiences to The Times — on condition that his identity not be revealed. A doctor who is treating him, at great risk to herself, confirmed that he is suicidal, and bears the appalling injuries consistent with his story. The family is desperate, and is exploring ways of fleeing Iran.

Reza is living proof of the charges levelled by Mehdi Karoubi, one of the opposition’s leaders, that prison officials are systematically raping both male and female detainees to break their wills. The regime has accused Mr Karoubi of helping Iran’s enemies by spreading lies and has threatened to arrest him.

The boy’s treatment also shows just how far a regime that claims to champion Islamic values is prepared to go to suppress millions of its own citizens who claim that President Ahmadinejad’s re-election was rigged.


Read this incredibly powerful story at The Times.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Hammering The Rock

It was a place for those who had made it. Plate glass and grandeur, reflected in the bright winter sunlight. The posh Pacific Heights neighbourhood was a world away from the street gangs and violence plaguing many American inner cities.

So it must have seemed to Bill Kuenzi on a typically brisk San Franciscan afternoon, January 26 2001, as he unlocked his friend's third-story apartment door. Until, that was, he heard the screams.

"It was high-pitched, desperate, continuous screaming," Kuenzi later testified in a Los Angeles court, "of a woman who was obviously being attacked. I knew I had to do something and I tried to call 911 on my cell phone."

Kuenzi's phone didn't work where he was. So he went to the stairs for better reception and began climbing toward the screaming. The cell phone still didn't work. He continued until he reached the fifth floor. Then fear stopped him. The screaming was coming from the sixth floor.

"I assumed it was a domestic violence situation," said Kuenzi, a 35-year-old stockbroker. "Or a woman being sexually assaulted. I realised that when I climbed to the sixth floor landing, I would be exposed to the situation, which I knew was violent, and I was scared."

He had good reason. The violence that Kuenzi feared was not being perpetrated by some enraged boyfriend who might be calmed down, or even a rapist who could be scared off by the arrival of others.

The attack taking place a floor above Kuenzi was being carried out by two huge Canary Island mastiffs. They had been bred as vicious attack dogs by a pair of prison cellmates, members of the white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood — possibly the most frightening prison gang in US history.

The dogs were mauling to death Diane Whipple, a petite 34-year-old college lacrosse coach and resident of the sixth floor, who had just returned from a shopping trip.

Descending again, Kuenzi finally got through to police. As he reached the ground floor, he heard Whipple's cries change to a low moan.

"Then the screaming stopped," he said.

The first police officers at the scene found Whipple in the sixth-floor hallway, nude, mutilated, covered in blood, and trying to crawl to her open apartment door. The carpet, floor and walls were smothered in bloody handprints.

Whipple was beyond help. Her larynx was crushed and her jugular vein had been severed by dog bites. The two dogs, Bane (male) and Hera (female), had worked together, Bane attacking her face and neck, Hera the lower body. Whipple would die in the emergency room 70 minutes later.

This strange and savage attack was to expose to the American public one of the more bizarre aspects of the Aryan Brotherhood. Known as Presa Canarios, the dogs which killed Diane Whipple belonged to her neighbours, Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller, husband-and-wife attorneys. Their legal practice had put them in contact with the two life-term prisoners at Pelican Bay, the most secure facility in the California system.

With Noel and Knoller's help, Paul "Cornfed" Schneider, an Aryan Brotherhood member, and Dale Bretches were running a dangerous business – against prison rules – that they called Dog o' War. Officials believe that huge dogs were being raised for sale to guard methamphetamine labs. The business was conducted from the cells, and by vulnerable contacts on the outside whom Cornfed managed to dupe.

Jewish-born Noel, 60, and Knoller, 46, were later convicted of involuntary manslaughter and, in Knoller's case, second-degree murder as well. There were allegations of sexual abuse concerning the dogs, and naked pictures of Knoller were also found in Cornfed's cell. Even so, these were hardly your run-of-the-mill Aryan Brotherhood associates. Yet the case threw into sharp relief the continued existence of America's most feared prison gang.

One of the most feared gangs in American history faces the ultimate showdown with the authorities – but will it be enough to smash 'The Rock'? Report by Nick Ryan.

Read the shocking tale of America's most feared prison gang; and how the authorities tried to break it. (Reprinted).

My Virtual Family

They are the 'Twitter generation'. Couch-potato teenagers, addicted to video games and instant messenging, dangerously cut-off from the outside world.

That, at least, is one depressing stereotype painted of today’s youth: we have a disgruntled, alienated generation ignored by its guardians and parents.

Video games, from 'first person shooters' (FPS), to massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPGs, or MMOs), are often blamed for heightening this apparently self-destructive behaviour.

Psychiatrist Dr Richard Graham, a specialist in treating adolescent addiction from the Tavistock Centre in London, has even said that the teenagers he saw were living entire days inside virtual game worlds. Their time inside hugely popular fantasy games, such as World of Warcraft, was damaging their health and studies.

"One young man described vividly to me a sense that having achieved very high success in the game, when he switched off he felt downgraded," he said.

But is there another side to this picture?

Time-pressed, divided families – those divorced, living away from their loved ones, or simply with grown-up children – are increasingly using online worlds and games to stay in touch with one another. It's an interesting, and as yet unreported, shift in the new ways we're being forced to associate. It is the rise of a virtual family, you might say.

More and more of us are finding ways to stay in touch with family and loved ones via online game worlds or "MMOs", says Nick Ryan.

Read how video games are providing a new way for us to communicate.

Good Heart in Africa

Two years ago he lay dying on the hard earth of a shanty town. As his life blood gushed out he stumbled away, trying to escape the men who had just shot him at point blank range.

"The third shot was like a fist going right up into my body. I really felt that," says the mild-mannered Belfast priest with a shudder. He pauses for a moment, licking his lips.

"I felt so alone … abandoned," states Father Kieran Creagh, as he remembers the night in February 2007, when a criminal gang attacked his South African hospice.

"They just rang the bell outside in the courtyard and I thought, 'oh, something must have happened in one of the wards'. I didn't realise these guys were inside. I opened the door … and that's when they grabbed me."

Leratong – the name means "place of love" in one of the six local languages spoken here – had been set up by Father Creagh in 2004, a single-minded effort to help tackle the massive HIV/AIDS crisis crushing the nation. With its hospice beds, drug clinic and creche, plus new church, it was at the physical and spiritual heart of the community.

A member of the Passionist order, Creagh had spent over a decade seeing his congregation succumb to the deadly disease. In the overcrowded, poverty-stricken township of Atteridgeville, about an hour west of the capital Pretoria, he had watched as old men lay dying in filthy shacks, unable to move; attended by wives who were scarcely less sick.

He felt passionately about bringing dignity to the dying: it was his vision and determination, despite funding problems, political obstructions and the South African government's refusal to provide anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs), that had led to Leratong's birth.

The irony was that he was now facing the end of his own, most extraordinary, life.

Fr Kieran Creagh narrowly escaped death in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and more recently in South Africa where he founded Leratong hospice. Nick Ryan meets a man who for many epitomises the essence of priesthood and its sacrifices.

Read the amazing story of 'The Father', my latest profile piece.

Lords of War

I first saw them on the slip road. They were trapped in a muddle of traffic, jostling to get through, eager, anxious, impatient; the mood of the driver transmitted down through the steering wheel and the throttle into the jerking, pushy movements of the car. I'd watched them as we drove past and now they were behind us framed in my observer's mirror, kicking up a plume of road dust as they weaved through the morning traffic on the highway through Fallujah. Pickups loaded with workers on the open backs, loose-fitting robes snapping in the milky warm slipstream, moved to let the black BMW 7 series charge through. They were like the members of a herd making way for a big predator which had earmarked its prey further into the throng.

I knew what was coming now just as the herd, watching from their pickups and battered saloons, did... But the difference was that I am not one of the herd.

They brave their lives in the shadowy world of mercenary riches, risking all for reward – but what are the dangers today of using so many 'soldiers of fortune' to protect corporate and diplomatic interests? Nick Ryan, who has met many private military and security contractors, looks at their motivations and at the wider industry they inhabit.

Read the story of today's modern mercenaries, now.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Gold Trading: Exposed

Is gold selling like pornography: something more of us do than admit? A shameful secret, something indulged alone and at night, in front of the screen; or during a lunchbreak, safely away from a partner, when a quick credit card or PayPal transaction will go unnoticed by others in-game?

Secret or not, we all hate 'gold sellers'. Apparently. Despise them, even. Ask your friends or colleagues: how many will openly admit to buying services from a gold farmer? Yeah, that's right. Not many. And the ones that do probably harp on just as loudly against them as the next man or woman.

But just who are these scourges of the gaming world? You probably know them as the anonymous figures plaguing your trade chat, offering great deals for game currency, power-levelling services or purchase of rare items and plans. In games such as World of Warcraft the infamous random whisper from a level 1: "Hello, are you there?" quickly leads into a macroed advert if you bother to reply. What with the well-known 'grind' present in most massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) these days, how many of us have been tempted to take that short cut?

The received wisdom, as we'll see later from the major games companies, is that such outfits are as good as organised crime: they support and promote hacking and stolen accounts and credit cards. They are not merely a nuisance and headache, but a plague to be stamped out which costs us all millions of greenbacks.

Yet this is the thing: if there was no demand, there'd be no market. And no gold sellers. Right? Yet gold selling – or 'real money trading' (RMT) to give it its emasculated, industry name (the real-world sale of virtual goods and services produced in online games) – is now worth an estimated US $2 billion annually. And that figure is growing.

It's worth up to $10 billion and used by 30% of all gamers – yet denied in public by most players and now even banned by a national government. In a four-part weekly feature series which was picked up across the Internet, Nick Ryan reports on the current state of the thriving grey market of "gold selling" in online worlds, which supports an industry of over 1 million in China alone.

Just who are these scourges of the gaming world?

Read the stories which set the internet alight -- now on my website for the first time.

The Fraud Busters™

My new story in Wired magazine:

Summer 2003 – The two men stepped off the long flight from Dublin. The Miami heat washed over them in a second, but they didn't flinch. In their line of work they were well-used to entering harsh climes; war-torn Liberia, the jungles of Papua New Guinea or a freezing Toronto winter – they went wherever the money trail led them.

The taller and more broad-shouldered of the two had once guarded US Presidents and worked out on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border when the US supported the mujahideen. His companion, shorter and with carefully-buttoned suit and tie, was a forensically-minded lawyer responsible for crossing swords with some of the most tenacious con-men the world had ever seen, sociopaths who would stop at nothing in their avarice. When you heard of names like Bernie Madoff or Sir Allen Stanford, chances are he was on their trail. He had sat across from these criminals as they told him how they lay awake at night, dreaming of ways to kill him.

Read October's Wired (UK) magazine for my story of the Global Fraud Busters.

Living With Dying - The Times Magazine

It is the great leveller. And the last taboo.

It brings down rich and poor alike. Hollywood gives it glamour; poets gild it with romance. Oscar Wilde even tried to make light of it. "My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or other of us has got to go," he muttered from a Parisian hotel, sipping his last champagne.

Our tabloids mawkishly follow its path, too, through the spectacle of reality TV star Jade Goody and actors such as Farrah Fawcett and Patrick Swayze fighting their doomed battles with cancer.

More than half a million people in the UK die every year, yet death is the one fact of life we refuse to confront. As we debate the morality of assisted suicide, five people with terminal illnesses movingly discuss what it really means to die:

The despair, anger, hope – even humour.

Read my story. Saturday 15th August: The Times Magazine.

(or read my original, longer piece here)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Who's killing Russia's human rights heroes?

It should have been a brief trip. Last Wednesday, Natalia Estemirova, known to her friends as Natasha, left her flat in the Chechen capital, Grozny, and set off towards the bus stop. Usually, it took her 15-20 minutes to get to work – a bumpy ride in a shared No 55 mini-van, down an avenue of green tower blocks, past giant posters of Chechnya's warlord president Ramzan Kadyrov, and several of Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin.

On this occasion, she didn't make it. A hundred metres beyond the entrance of her 10th-floor flat – which overlooks a patch of grassy wasteland and a grove of shabby walnut trees – four gunmen were waiting. They grabbed Estemirova, bundled her into a white Russian-made Zhiguli car and drove off. A woman passer-by saw the abduction and heard her cry out.

It was 8.30am. Her kidnappers headed in the direction of Ingushetia, Chechnya's neighbouring republic. Probably, they took the M-29 highway, though there is also a grassy back-route looping along a hillside. The road is a scenic one: it cuts though a dark tunnel of poplar trees; on the roadside women sell melons from the backs of trucks. The kidnappers breezed through several checkpoints.

Two hours later, Estemirova was dead. The men stopped their vehicle soon after crossing into Ingushetia. Up ahead, a group of Islamist militants had ambushed a government car, opening fire. Estemirova's kidnappers may at this point have panicked. They marched her, hands tied, off the road. And then they shot her five times in the head and chest – leaving behind her money, passport and ID card.

This was no robbery. Instead, her friends believe it was something else: a vile, cowardly, meticulous, state-sponsored execution, apparently designed to send a chilling warning to the small, dwindling number of activists still working in Chechnya, Russia's rogue republic. Last week, Estemirova's colleague Oleg Orlov certainly felt in no doubt as to who killed her.

--> part of a great piece today in The Guardian, by journalist Luke Harding (a great guy whom I once met, many moons ago)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


There's a great story up on the website of US magazine, 'Details'.

Private Dwyer's Last Breath details the tragic tale of a US veteran who turned, like many others, to a chemical propellant widely-available on US bases. Why? To deal with the traumas and stress of war.

It's a powerful piece, well told. I urge you to read it.
Worth reading Farhad Manjoo's column on Slate's website, concerning Amazon remotely deleting books held on its electronic book readers.

i.e. they can delete books you've already paid for, possibly leading to a future where all copies of a work could be permanently destroyed.

Monday, July 20, 2009

New stories

There are two new stories by me now available online.

1. Good Heart in Africa -- a profile of the amazing Belfast priest, Father Kieran Creagh, working tirelessly out in South Africa for the dying

2. Play Mates -- my revelations about the use of online games to bring families and loved ones together.

Trial of the century?

One to watch:

The trial of the dozens of suspected members of a shadowy ultranationalist network in Turkey, accused of plotting to bring down the regime.

All sounds rather familiar ... makes for a good film too?

Read more about the Ergenekon case.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Europe swings Right

From the council house estates of Britain's former industrial heartland to French cities looking out across the Mediterranean to North Africa, European far-right parties have picked up an army of supporters in the international recession.

Families who have lost jobs and homes became an automatic target for the British National Party (BNP), Jobbik in Hungary, the National Front in France and the Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands with their anti-immigrant, anti-Islam, anti-establishment proclamations.

However, in other parts of Europe the vote dropped, leaving the far right groups with eight more seats in the Parliament than they had in 2004.

The BNP picked up two seats in the just-ended European parliament election that have brought all the parties into the spotlight.

BNP leader Nick Griffin is a Cambridge University-educated political scrapper who has completely recast his party's image.

But his message is much the same as in the other countries.

"This is a Christian country and Islam is not welcome, because Islam and Christianity, Islam and democracy, Islam and women's rights do not mix," he told Sky Television on Sunday night.

"That's a simple fact that the elites of Europe are going to have to get their heads round and deal with over the next few years."

Geert Wilders' PVV won 17 per cent of the Dutch vote in the election and will send four deputies to the EU parliament.

The far-right Jobbik party, participating in the elections for the first time, finished third in Hungary with 14.74 per cent of the vote and will get three deputies. The ultra-nationalist Ataka party in Bulgaria also expects three seats after getting 10-12 per cent of the vote.

Jobbik has seized upon what it calls "Roma crimes" and set up a paramilitary offshoot, the Hungarian Guard, to stage marches in Roma dominated villages. The head of a police trade union was on its European election candidates list.

The Greater Romania party was predicted to get about seven per cent and two deputies, according to exit polls.

Amsterdam University political analyst, Fouad Laroui, said that there was a growing move toward leaders like the populist Wilders "who use simple language - caricatures".

In the Netherlands and the rest of Europe, this sector makes up a fifth of all voters, he estimated - a group, "who understand little apart from feeling threatened."

Alfred Pijpers, researcher at the Dutch international relations institute Clingendael, said Wilders had tapped into voters who "veer from left to right without subscribing to the specific policies of political parties".

"These are, above all, people who have a degree of resentment towards the elite and feel misunderstood, excluded from society and the media," he said.

The BNP described the election of its two deputies at the expense of the scandal-stricken ruling Labour Party in Britain as a "historic moment".

However, Health Minister Andrew Burnham called it a "sad moment". He vowed it would "redouble our determination to take them on and take them out of British politics".

Government ministers and the Conservative party had sought to remind voters of BNP policies, which include calls for the immediate halt to all immigration and the "voluntary resettlement" of all immigrants.

The Conservative party's Europe spokesman, Mark Francois, said it was a "disappointing night".

French firebrand Jean-Marie Le Pen is a reminder, however, of how difficult it is to get rid of the far-right, even when it opposes everything in the EU parliament.

At the age of 80, Le Pen, who has been found guilty of calling the Nazi gas chambers a "detail" of history and has thrived on shocking the nation, is now the doyen of French members of the EU assembly.

Having been elected again, he swore to "defend France against Europe, against the abuses of the European Union." His daughter Marine was also reelected in the north of France.

The EU parliament recently adopted reforms to its operating rules so that Le Pen, as the longest serving member, cannot preside over its inaugural session.

(taken from Yahoo News)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What's it like to work for The New Yorker?

Veteran journalist Dan Baum puts together an intriguing chronicle of his time as a New Yorker magazine staff writer (originally he 'Tweeted' it) over on his website.

Some gems:

must say, though, the office itself is a little creepy. I didn’t work there. I live in Colorado. But I’d visit 3-4X a year.

Everybody whispers.

It’s not exactly like being in a library; it’s more like being in a hospital room where somebody is dying.

Like someone’s dying, and everybody feels a little guilty about it.

There’s a weird tension to the place. If you raise your voice to normal level, heads pop up from cubicles.

And from around the stacks of review copies that lie everywhere like a graveyard of writers’ aspirations.

It always seemed strange. Making it to the New Yorker is an achievement. It is vastly prestigious, of course.

And the work is truly satisfying. Imagine putting out that magazine every week!

Yet nobody at the office seems very happy. The atmosphere is vastly strained.

I’d get back on the Times Square sidewalk after a visit and feel I needed to flap my arms.

Get some air into my lungs, maybe jog half a block. And I came to realize I had a really good job.

I could write for the New Yorker, but not have to be of the New Yorker.

Well worth reading the whole thing.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Far Right politician admits lying about knife murders

The British National Party's only elected member of the Greater London Assembly, and a leading local councillor in the London borough of Barking, as admitted putting out "incorrect" (i.e. lying) statements about three (fictitious) knife murders in his borough -- action which could lead to his suspension.

The Guardian newspaper reports that the statements, made on a Youtube video filmed by the BNP's deputy chairman, were wrong and knowingly so, in a joint report from the GLA and Barking & Dagenham council.

The complaint against Barnbrook was first lodged last September after he claimed in an interview posted on YouTube and his own website that a girl had been murdered within the borough within the past three weeks. "We don't know who's done it. Her girlfriend was attacked inside an educational institute," Barnbrook said in the prerecorded interview in which he sought to highlight failings in tackling knife crime.

He also said that two weeks previously "there was another attack by knives on the streets of Barking and Dagenham where two people were murdered".

Barnbrook, who is one of twelve BNP councillors in Barking and Dagenham, said that he knew at the time that he made the statements that "there had been no fatalities in Barking and Dagenham", according to a report documenting the investigation into the complaint.

Barnbrook nevertheless refused to apologise for the statements "until knife crime is over".

The Metropolitan police confirmed that there had been no murders or incidents resulting in critical injuries requiring intensive care in the time period cited, and that murders in the area were actually decreasing.

The eternally-beige suited Barnbrook now faces a full hearing after the respective committees at the GLA and the London borough considered the investigation's report two weeks ago.

What never ceases to amaze me: the man on the street laments politicians for being corrupt, useless, etc etc, yet turns to the first -- COMPLETEY OBVIOUS -- carpet bagger coming along. Talk about being sheep ...

(As readers of this blog will know, I met Barnbrook several times during my reporting for both The Observer Magazine, covering the Mayoral elections for and my new book).

Dangerous times for coverage of Israel

Dangerous times when the BBC lumbers to censure its highly-respected Middle Eastern editor, Jeremy Bowen. Shame on those pro-Zionist lobbyists who crow and allow no open debate on the Israeli-Palestinian question.

Even Jonathan Dimbleby the broadcaster has weighed into the affray, accusing the Beeb of kowtowing to pressures from outside.

Jeremy Bowen is justly regarded as one of the BBC’s most courageous, authoritative and thoughtful broadcasters; his hundreds of despatches and commentaries from various frontlines in the Middle East have been noted for their acuity and balance. Now, thanks to the Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee (ESC) — a body with the absolute and final authority of a latter-day Star Chamber — not only has Bowen’s hard-won reputation been sullied, but the BBC’s international status as the best source of trustworthy news in the world has been gratuitously — if unintentionally — undermined.

Not surprisingly, BBC journalists and news executives are aghast at the Trust’s blundering response to a series of complaints — from two individuals only — that, astonishingly, were given the full red-carpet treatment. Forget the here-today, gone-tomorrow headlines in the British media which gave the usual suspects in parts of the media yet another chance to bash the BBC. Far more disturbing is the impact of the ESC’s verdict on the BBC’s international reputation and on the morale of its staff in a news division which more than any other part of the corporation provides the BBC with its defining 21st century purpose.

Here here. The BBC is hoisted by its own ponderous petard, its procedures for fairness abused by those with fundamentalist views and who show almost contempt for its efforts to report accurately in very difficult circumstances.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

London Nailbombs: 10 Years Today

It was 10 years ago today, 30 April 1999, that a twisted fantasist, David Copeland, unleashed three nailbombs in London. Three people were killed and 165 wounded by this race hater's dream of inciting a "war", sparked on by his membership of (first) the British National Party (BNP) and then the tiny band of zealots run by former mad monk (and now Islamist) David Myatt.

Local press is covering the story, as are various national and ethnic and gay media and forums: the bomber, Copeland, had targeted both black (Brixton), Asian (Brick Lane) and gay (Old Compton Street) areas of the capital.

One chapter of my book, HOMELAND, tells the story of how I just missed being caught in one of the bombs myself; and how those I know were affected by this tragedy.

Stieg Larsson honored in bestseller lists

The Guardian reports that a Swedish crime wave is taking place: not of smash and grab criminals, but novelists from the Scandinavian realm, topping the European bestseller charts.

Leading the way is my old contact Stieg Larsson, author of The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo. It was a real shame Stieg died too young, of a heart attack in 2004. I'd met him a couple of times: as a journalist, Stieg was one of the foremost experts on right-wing extremists in Sweden and leading member of Expo, a magazine investigating extremists. I had no idea he was writing crime novels either, but seems the fates have been kind to him since his passing.

Well, now I must go out and get my copy of his books!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Trial opens into alleged gang kidnap, torture and murder of French Jew

From The Guardian:

France was forced to confront the moral decay of its deprived housing estates as the trial opened today one of the decade's most harrowing murder cases: the kidnap and torturing to death of a Jewish mobile phone salesman by a gang said to believe Jews were "loaded" and would club together to pay a ransom.

Ilan Halimi, 23, was found naked with his head shaved, in handcuffs and covered with burn marks and stab wounds near rail tracks outside Paris in February 2006. In a state of shock and unable to speak, he died en route to hospital. He had been held, tortured and beaten for three weeks, his head wrapped in tape, eyes Sellotaped shut and fed through a straw, while a gang known as the Barbarians demanded a ransom from his family.

Police initially did not treat the case as a hate crime. But within days of Halimi's death his family said he was targeted because he was Jewish. France, still coming to terms with its anti-semitic collaboration of the second world war, was plunged into a wave of soul-searching. Tens of thousands of people marched against anti-semitism.

The leader of the Barbarians gang, Youssouf Fofana, 28, a French school dropout turned petty criminal, has appeared in court accused of kidnapping, torture and assassination, with anti-semitism as an aggravating circumstance. Facing life imprisonment, he admits masterminding the kidnap but denies murder. A deliberately provocative character who has bombarded officials and lawyers with insults, he arrived in court shouting "Allah will be victorious". Of the 26 other defendants, 15 are accused of taking part in the plot. Others are accused of adhering to a law of silence and not going to the police.

Frank Lindh's latest talk

'American Taliban' John Lindh's father, Frank Lindh, continues his quest for his son's freedom in his latest talk.

"John, himself, is very scholarly and thorough in studying traditional Islam," Lindh said. "When he heard bin Laden speak, he recognized almost immediately that he was not a scholar. So John found him boring and he actually reported that he fell asleep while bin Laden was speaking at the camp one night."

A major point that Lindh emphasised was that John was immediately labeled guilty of terrorism by the government, and the media was biased and unconstitutional.

"Even the president said that he was an al-Qaida warrior, which is wrong," said Richard Gonzales, a sophomore mechanical engineering student. "We have no evidence to prove that's right, so how can we really say that he's guilty of all these crimes?"

As chronicled recently, the list of US abuses of prisoners in its detention during the War on Terror remains troubling for anyone concerned for international law and the Geneva Conventions.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Why you should avoid internet weirdoes

And I can think of many people I know (or read) posting on internet forums that seem quite worrying, too, after reading this story on the Daily Mail today:

A computer fanatic flew from his home in Germany to stab a website manager to death after he became obsessed with his victim's girlfriend over the internet, a court heard today.

David Heiss, 21, stabbed Matthew Pyke 86 times in his own home in a 'cold, calculated and pre-meditated' attack which was 'born out of obsession and hatred in equal measure', a jury were told.

Prosecutor Shaun Smith QC told how Heiss 'acted in his real life as he did in his cyber life' and became fixated with his victim's girlfriend, Joanna Witton, through an on-line strategic game playing site called

Listen up all you nerdragers and obsessives: remember it's just a game, yo ....

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Gold Trading Exposed

My website now includes links to the Gold Trading Exposed series, recently written for the gaming industry website, Eurogamer.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The "other" Sir Allen

Not Sugar, but Stanford. I just recalled that I'd been to the bar owned by Sir Allen Stanford, the Texas billionaire now being investigated by the SEC in America for an alleged $8 billion Ponzi scheme.

You'll have seen his strange interview, linked below; now see the bar and cricket ground near the airport in Antigua, in the Caribbean, where I recently spent a few hours during a layover between flights.

The Twenty20 ground
Neil at the Sticky Wicket
Sticky Wicket

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Bizarre interview

Sir Allen Stanford, who until recently bankrolled Twenty20 cricket and flew around the world in a private jet, offers a somewhat bizarre rebuttal of the accusations against him in this interview on ABC News.

Standing accused of running a massive US $8 billion Ponzi scheme, Sir Allen alternately laughs, cries, rages and threatens violence to those who suggest he was a mere con man and not a legit businessman.

Watch the video and watch this space for my piece on the guys who take down fraudsters (see previous stories here).

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Meet the Chinese gold sellers and farmers

There are over one million 'gold farmers' in China, in an industry which makes up to US $10 billion per annum.

So I reveal in the second part of my Eurogamer investigation into 'gold selling' in online worlds, I talk to a Chinese 'gold farmer', a 'gold seller' who sells his wares and an old skool gamer who describes the lure of buying and selling virtual items.

Many farmers are earning just a handful of dollars a day for their work, spending 10-12 hours 'grinding' items and selling on the proceeds to the boss of a workshop, who then makes a profit selling to a third-party broker (the gold seller) who then deals with the end player.

See the full report up at Eurogamer; and catch the third part of the series for the Players' reaction.

Games companies respond in the final part of the series, The Carrot and the Stick, published Easter weekend.

The National publishes American Taliban story

The National newspaper in the Middle East has published the latest of my stories on John Walker Lindh, the so-called 'American Taliban', and the campaign by his father Frank Lindh, and mother Marilyn Walker, to have him released from prison.

As the piece notes, some of the draconian restrictions imposed on Lindh since his imprisonment in 2001 have finally been lifted (no-one is quite sure yet what this means) and hopes are being raised that the US Federal authorities may look favourably on his case once more.

Lindh was jailed in the hysteria and aftermath of September 11: whilst foolish and naive, even a zealot for a time, others convicted of 'greater' crimes than him (he was actually sentenced to 20 years in jail for breaking economic sanctions on the Taliban) have since been released.

Read The National story to find out more; a longer version is up at my own website.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Journalists dismayed by UN defamation of religion resolution

Journalist organisations worldwide are said to be dismayed by a new UN resolution which seeks to ban defamation against religion.

The United Nations Human Rights Council approved a resolution on defamation of religion last week. "This decision brings discredit on the UN Human Rights Council, which should not justify censorship and the stifling of dissenting voices," said the World Association of Newspapers (WAN).

The Council's resolution, proposed by Pakistan on behalf of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and approved by the Council on 26 March, calls for a global fight against "defamation of religions". Islamic countries argue that criticising or satirising religions is a violation of the rights of believers and leads to discrimination and violence against them.

The resolution was passed by a vote of 23-11, with 13 abstentions. Freedom House, which co-organised a petition signed by more than 180 organisations worldwide against the resolution, said it was "especially disappointed that South Africa, a liberal democracy whose citizens have a deep understanding of how such laws are used to punish dissenters, continues to back these

According to IFEX members, the defamation of religion concept can be used by authoritarian governments to stifle debate and criticism of religions and religious institutions.

"These countries are using the UN to expand and bring legitimacy to their frontal assault on freedom of expression," said Freedom House. "This assault starts at the level of domestic blasphemy laws present in many OIC countries, which are routinely employed to harass and imprison religious minorities, political dissenters and human rights advocates, and is elevated to the international level through resolutions at the UN."

According to ARTICLE 19 and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), the resolution is the latest in a series on the subject of "defamation of religions". The first was adopted in 1999 by the UN Commission on Human Rights. ARTICLE 19 and CIHRS voiced "extreme concern" that the cumulative effect of these resolutions serves to undermine established international human rights guarantees on the right to freedom of expression but also on the rights to freedom of religion and to equality.

"It is shameful and disappointing. Unfortunately, it is also unsurprising given the way this issue has unfolded in the UN over the last decade," said ARTICLE 19.

According to Freedom House, text condemning "defamation of religions" was originally part of a draft declaration to be issued at the Durban II anti-racism conference in Geneva next month. But it was withdrawn after Western nations said they would pull out of the UN conference unless it was removed.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The end of newspapers

Polly Toynbee writes in the UK's Guardian newspaper about a terrific swathe of job losses and closures taking place inside the UK's local newspaper industy.

National newspapers, meanwhile, are also in freefall: The Independent is moving into the offices of the Daily Mail, to save its haemorrhage of cash. The Evening Standard is sold to a Russian billionaire for £1. As TV channels suffer collapsing revenues too, only the BBC and its excellent website seems to be shining through the depressing mass of closures and desperate desire to bottomfeed for the same, tired exclusives as everyone else. And blogging, nor citizen media, is going to replace this.

Bloggers and local citizens with video cameras, or poorly-paid interns, don't have the training, the legal resources, the financial resources, someone helping and directing them, to undertake deep investigations, to work sources, to stand up to libel threats, in order to uncover the real stories out there. You may say that local papers are not doing that anyway -- and I'd agree. But the move downwards, to cut costs, to rely on free, only leads to more churnalism (regurgitating press releases) or interviews with public figures who know they're not going to get a hard time.

Let's see how brave all the bloggers are when they get sued!

I'll just pop the last few lines of David Simon's (The Wire creator) recent Washington Post piece about the decline of local newspapers.

He was explaining that as a former crime reporter, he could get access to judges, police informants etc to discover if the police were inflating the threats they faced or if they were shooting people without reason in Baltimore:

"... There is a lot of talk nowadays about what will replace the dinosaur that is the daily newspaper. So-called citizen journalists and bloggers and media pundits have lined up to tell us that newspapers are dying but that the news business will endure, that this moment is less tragic than it is transformational.

"Well, sorry, but I didn't trip over any blogger trying to find out McKissick's identity [ a police officer who had twice lost their gun and had now shot an OAP in an incident] and performance history. Nor were any citizen journalists at the City Council hearing in January when police officials inflated the nature and severity of the threats against officers. And there wasn't anyone working sources in the police department to counterbalance all of the spin or omission.

"I didn't trip over a herd of hungry [Baltimore] Sun reporters either, but that's the point. In an American city, a police officer with the authority to take human life can now do so in the shadows, while his higher-ups can claim that this is necessary not to avoid public accountability, but to mitigate against a nonexistent wave of threats. And the last remaining daily newspaper in town no longer has the manpower, the expertise or the institutional memory to challenge any of it...."

Hear, hear.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Restrictions eased on 'American Taliban'

News released last week reveals that John Lindh, the so-called 'American Taliban' serving 20 years for violating trade sanctions imposed on the Taliban (and not for being a "terrorist", unlike most Americans think), is having some of his draconian prison restrictions lifted.

Lindh will now be able to see people outside of his immediate family and legal team. Prior to this he's been forbidden to speak Arabic, to communicate in letters and to talk to the media.

Anyone interested in the wider story, and miscarriage of justice, surround John Lindh's case and the fight by his parents for his freedom can read my article John Walker's Blues, in which I met the family, friends and supporters last year.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Elephant in the Room -- Gold Selling in Virtual Worlds

Up to 30% of online gamers could be buying virtual currency and game items inside hugely-popular virtual worlds such as World of Warcraft.

That, at least, is according to one of my sources I interviewed for this series of articles exposing the scale of "gold selling" within the gaming industry, on website.

Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPGs, or MMOs for short) have expanded to become household names in recent years -- Warhammer Online, EVE Online, World of Warcraft -- all are known by kids and adults alike in today's increasingly popular, and crowded, gaming market.

These are worlds where you immerse yourself in the life of a character, take on heroic roles, quest with friends and join potentially huge raids into complex dungeons. Yet the 'grind' these games create -- you're required to spend hours, and days, carrying out repetitive tasks to earn rewards, and thus game currency and items -- puts off a good many players it seems. So much so that they're willing to part with real-world cash in order to get the edge in these fantasy and sci-fi universes.

Whilst the stereotype of the gold farmer remains that of an overworked, Chinese shift worker, such as The Guardian recently suggested; and the gold sellers they report to as shifty middle men, often linked to organised crime; I've found there is a strong desire for change from the playerbase of these games. And several MMO firms are now responding with their own initiatives as a result.

Read the first article today; each week another piece will be added, telling the story from the farmers' perspective, the sellers, the players and the gaming companies.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Scandal of the boat people

It seems not only the Burmese regime which is contributing to a humanitarian crisis in one of the most repressive nations on Earth ... but the neighbouring Thai authorities, too.

The Thai military stands accused of dumping men, women and children from the Rohingya boat people deep out in the ocean. A repressed Muslim minority from northwest Myanmar (Burma), they've fled conflict to end up in Thailand. However the authorities there label them as illegal migrants ... and drag them out to deep sea in their small boats, where hundreds are now feared drowned.

According to Reuters AlertNet service, 550+ Rohingya are now feared dead since early December. Another 193 washed up on Indonesia's Aceh coast earlier this month.

Along with the decision recently to jail an Australian author deemed to have 'insulted' the country's monarch, the gilding is looking a little tarnished for Thailand, the holiday haven. Sympathy from the days of the Tsunami is looking rather old news.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Asterix: An Unseemly Row

War has broken out (ok a war of words) in the Gallic press, between Asterix creator and illustrator Albert Uderzo and his daughter Sylvie.

Apparently the old chap has decided to sell a 60 percent stake in his publishing company to French publisher Hachette Livre, which has outraged his daughter, who calls Asterix "her paper brother". I guess she's worried the money men are going to spin off the franchise into ever more commercial arms and believes her dad has been pressured by advisors into this turnaround (he'd sworn to keep his publishing company small, apparently).

Well, now dad has hit back and finds the row all rather unseemly, as you can read here.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Most selfish nation?

Are we the most selfish nation in Europe (the Brits)? Seems so. Checking out Mark Easton's blog on the BBC reveals various pieces of research which shows we trust each other less, and are living in a highly-individualised society.

If it weren't for some reasonably healthy scores among the over-50s, the UK would drop below Bulgaria and Slovakia as the least trusting of all the European nations surveyed.

The researchers suggest that our low "trust and belonging" score may be "the result of the development of a highly individualistic culture in the UK". Basically, the suggestion is that we are in danger of becoming the most selfish nation in Europe.

If the research is robust and the conclusion sound, then this is one of the most troubling findings about my homeland that I have ever read.

Among the factors which emerge as having a big negative impact on a country's wellbeing score are a general fear of crime and a lack of trust in institutions. Also, the more time its population spends watching TV, the more unhappy a country appears to be.
One can see why Britain might struggle.

Easton's blog is here.