The post-Brexit trade deal does not favour the financial services sector

One last big trade-off left and the quota on fish got the spotlight. It had to be some sort of trade-off – the British accepted smaller reductions in the European quota for fish, in exchange for something called rules of origin for the car park – and so it came to pass. On Christmas Eve, in the middle of a global pandemic, a trade and security agreement, on what has been a long and tense journey between the United Kingdom and the European Union has been reached. In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson said he had secured “free trade with the EU without being drawn into their regulatory or legislative orbit”. The 1,255- page document published on December 26th does offer a deal, but people are still wondering about the details.

One of the overlooked areas was services. Critics say that Mr Johnson has wrongly prioritized fisheries and goods over the biggest export sector, services. The services economy makes up for about 80% of the British economy, with far more services to the EU than import and conversely, import far more goods from the EU than export. Described by many as thin, the deal on services will mainly affect how businesses are conducted, but the ramifications are much wider. For example, the qualifications earned in the UK as an accountant, doctor, architect, etc will no longer be recognized in the EU. But the one hit the hardest, it is without a doubt the financial sector and more precisely, the city of London.

For four years, Brexiteers have promised that London will flourish once it left the financial regulations of the EU, but the political uncertainty made almost every major company consider relocating and open offices in different parts of the continent. After the referendum result, the city regulators got all the firms in the city to prepare for the worst and a lot of work was spent ensuring they will be able to continue trading.

What does the deal essentially mean for London and the financial sector?

The City UK lobby group argues that the financial services sector is, in fact, the biggest taxpayer in the country and their report revealed financial services made up 10% of GDP, with 2.3 million people employed across Britain. In 2019, financial services exports amounted to 60 billion – almost as much as the US and Switzerland, the next two big exporters combined. Two and a half times as many US dollars are traded in London as they are in the US, and 75% of all Euro trading goes through the city.

Some things that happened in London can no longer happen. If you traded shares in London in one of the EU27 countries, after January 1st, that had to move back to the EU. The EU brought in something called share trade obligation, and what it basically means is that people in the EU, trading in EU shares securities are legally obliged to trade them in the EU. As a result, 6 billion of EU share trading has moved away from London into other sites overnight. London’s success as the financial centre for the trading of European equities has partly been attributed to passporting, which is the right to operate around the EU27 nations. That passport is now gone.

There has already been seen the trading of some EU companies moving from London to Europe. The European Banking authority moved its headquarters from London. The European Central Bank estimated that about 1.1 trillion of assets have moved back in the EU. A report by think tank New Financial revealed that about 300 firms have set up new legal entities or moved staff in the EU.

In an interview with Stories of our times, founder and CEO of Aquis Exchange, Alastair Haynes, who in preparation for Brexit opened an office in Paris one year ago, said he was shocked at how things changed overnight: “Dramatic shift of liquidity from one place to another overnight. Up till now 75-80% of our businesses was European share trading done in London, and what happened yesterday is that that 75-80 %, 95% of it moved over to our Paris office overnight and that meant 1.4 billion Euros of business moved out of the UK into the EU. Suddenly 80% of our revenues are being derived in France. That means that that will get taxed in France and that is a tax that is lost to the UK.”

Crucial to the future of financial services sector is whether or not, the UK will be granted equivalence and for that to happen, Britain needs to convince the EU, that it will operate under the same rigorous regulations as the EU. The government is yet to decide on where it stands on the issue, but many experts agree that will probably not work in London’s best interest. In an overregulated jurisdiction, the city will struggle. London needs to find ways to be innovative, to reduce the cost of regulations while maintaining high standards that allow for a low tax environment. Major players like the US, China or Japan, are also the ones who set the rules. Where they decide to do business is essential. Also, additional terms might be negotiated in the agreement. And there is always the question of how technology will change the ways in which businesses are being done.

Airbnb cancels and blocks all reservations in the Washington D.C. area during inauguration week

Amid increased risk of violence and concerns that the mob riots incited by President Donald Trump, which stormed the Capitol last week were only a glimpse of what might be coming next, Airbnb is said to be cancelling and blocking all reservations in the Washington DC area during the presidential inauguration week.

“Today, in response to various local, state, and federal officials asking people not to travel to Washington, D.C., we are announcing that Airbnb will cancel reservations in the Washington, D.C. metro area during the inauguration week,” Airbnb said in a statement.

The decision came on Wednesday, after state and federal officials warned people not to travel to Washington, D.C, as plans for new armed protests and calls for violence started circulating on social media forums. The tragic events which took place on 6 January, and left five people dead, made Airbnb rethink its policies and cancel all reservations during the week of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.

This is not the first time Airbnb removed guests who are identified as members of hate groups. In 2017, it blocked guests who were planning to take part in a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Airbnb said they wanted to make sure “hate groups are not part of the Airbnb community.”

The company said that after the names of the individuals responsible for the attack on the Capitol were revealed through media and from law enforcements sources, it started its own investigation into identifying whether these individuals have an account with them.

“We have identified numerous individuals who are either associated with known hate groups or otherwise involved in the criminal activity at the Capitol Building, and they have been banned from Airbnb’s platform,” Airbnb said.

The short-term rental site said they will refund in full guests whose reservations were cancelled and their hosts will be reimbursed the money they would have earned from the cancelled reservations. Its subsidiary, Hotel Tonight took the same stance.

Airbnb refused to say how many reservations were cancelled. For those renting long-term or for medical reason there are exceptions.

The FBI has warned that armed protests are being planned in the capitals of all 50 states.

According to Open Secrets, the Center for Responsive Politics which tracks money in politics, Airbnb donated $866,519 to political parties and candidates in the 2020 elections, with President-elect Joe Biden being the biggest beneficiary.

The company – together with Marriot, AT&T, and Walmart – are determined against any future donations to the Republicans who voted against the legitimacy of the elections.

Last week saw Mr. Trump banned from Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and Reddit. 70,000 accounts related to QAnon were removed from Twitter, and Facebook has banned almost entirely the hashtag “Stop the Steal”, a phrase used to overturn the 2020 presidential election results. Facebook said it had tracked online material inciting to protest and some of it included calls to arms or the insignia of militias.

Taking A Step Into The Big Wide World Of All Things Legal

Becoming a lawyer is a lengthy process and applying for legal work experience can be extremely daunting. But fear not, a traditional law degree is far from your only option. However, whichever path you choose to take, there is one thing you need to keep in mind: gaining work experience!

The term lawyer is the general description given to anyone who is qualified to give legal advice as a licensed legal practitioner. This includes solicitors and barristers and the process for each differ depending on where you reside.

In UK and Wales, qualifying as a solicitor through the conventional ways, full-time study, usually takes six years – including a three-year law degree (LLB), a one-year Legal Practice Course (LPC), and finally a two-year training contract with a law firm or in-house in a large organization. If your background is a non-law degree, you will need to add another year to take your GDL (Graduate Diploma in Law) conversion before your LPC bringing the total to seven years. To become a barrister takes five years: a three-year law degree, a one-year Bar course and a one-year pupillage. Same as before, an extra year if your degree was not in law. Other legal roles include paralegals and chartered legal executives, and these usually take four years of part-time study at Level 3 (A-level) and Level 6 (Undergraduate Degree), followed by a three-year work placement.

No matter which direction you choose to go into, it is vital to get your work experience as soon in the process as possible. If you are considering a career as a solicitor and this is the one we will be focusing on today, there are a few options you might take into account. Do not forget, the more experience, the better.

A good start would be to take advantage of the Law Firm Open Days and spend a day in a law firm. This will allow you to get a sense of the work they do, as well as network with the recruitment team.

Both law internships and vacation schemes can play an important role in your future employment as this is a great way to show recruiters you are committed to a legal career. Lasting between one to four weeks, these apprenticeship schemes will give you the opportunity to perform tasks usually done by trainee solicitors. Application deadlines for spring/summer vacation schemes usually tend to be around January time, and for winter vacation schemes around October/November time. But make no mistake, securing your two-year training contract will most likely be the biggest challenge you will face.

What is a law training contract?

A law training contract is the two-year training period in a law firm, and it represents the final step when qualifying as a solicitor. It is also the place where trainee solicitors put into practice the theoretical studies learned at university. The best time to apply for your training contract is either in the penultimate year of your undergraduate degree (May/June) if you are studying law, or the last year if your qualification is something different. This period of recognised training is regulated by the Solicitor’s Regulatory Authority (SRA).

You will be given a supervisor who will assign you tasks and assess your work at the end. As a trainee solicitor, you will be involved in administrative work such as proofreading documents, preparing for and attending court proceedings, interviews and meetings with clients, as well as drafting and negotiating legal documents and contracts. This is a great opportunity to prove to the law firm and the SRA you have the skills required to practice law. Legal trainees do this through completing a number of ‘seats’, and depending on where you train, they will either consist of six-month stints in four different departments or a larger number of shorter seats.

There has also been an increase in the demand for training contract secondments, which is the ‘seat’ spent with one of your firm’s clients. The last part of your training contract is to pass the compulsory Professional Skills Course, which generally takes 12 days to complete and is paid by your firm. This covers three core sections: financial and business skills, advocacy and communication skills, and client care and professional standards. In addition to this, you will also have to complete 24 hours of elective training. From September 2021, the SRA is set to introduce a new system for aspiring solicitors called the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) which will no longer be restricted to traditional training contracts.

Julian Assange: no extradition, no bail!

There is no doubt that the story of Julian Assange and his decade-long struggle with the law has been keeping governments, the media and the public at large wondering what will come next – and his latest ruling against extradition to the United States is no different. On Monday, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser blocked the US justice department’s request for Mr. Assange extradition on espionage and hacking charges on the grounds he would be likely to commit suicide under the harsh American prison conditions. While the result seemed to bring joy to Mr. Assange and his supporters, the reasoning behind it puts journalists all around the world at risk.

The founder of Wikileaks made international headlines in 2010 and 2011, after publishing a classified US military video showing an Apache helicopter shooting 18 civilians in Baghdad in 2007, including two Reuters war correspondents. Wikileaks then released over 250,000 military cables and classified documents on the handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that saw former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning jailed. US prosecutors have indicted Assange on 17 espionage charges and one charge of “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion,” which could imprison him for 175 years.

Assange’s claims he was acting as a journalist have been dismissed by the British judge, who explicitly concluded that the defendant should answer the allegations brought against him, outlining the British extradition law requires to consider his health. She said: “Faced with the conditions of near total isolation without the protective factors which limited his risk at HMP Belmarsh, I am satisfied the procedures described by the US will not prevent Mr. Assange from finding a way to commit suicide and for this reason I have decided extradition would be oppressive by reason of mental harm and I order his discharge.”

The US authorities have 14 days to appeal this decision and it appears they will do so, which could take the case to London’s High Court and ultimately the UK’s Supreme Court. While the US justice department expressed disappointment in the judgement, they said they are satisfied all their legal arguments had prevailed. “While we are extremely disappointed in the court’s decision, we are gratified that the United States prevailed on every point raised.” This caused a series of reactions from politicians and organizations around the world.

  • Amnesty International criticised the UK for “having engaged in this politically-motivated process at the behest of the USA and putting media freedom and freedom of expression on trial”
  • UK Conservative MP David Davis tweeted: “Good news Julian Assange’s extradition has been blocked. Extradition treaties should not be used for political prosecutions”
  • Former UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said it is “good news” although “alarming that the judge has accepted US government arguments threatening freedom of speech and freedom to publish”
  • Michelle Stanistreet, head of the NUJ described the outcome as “the right one” but the assessment as “much that is troubling”
  • John Pilger, journalist and documentary maker tweeted: “Julian Assange has been discharged by the judge at the Old Bailey on grounds he was too great a suicide risk if extradited to the US. This is wonderful! It’s a face-saving cover for the British to justify their disgraceful political trial of #Assange on America’s behalf”

Others took the issue further and offered Assange political asylum. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said: “Assange is a journalist and deserves a chance. We’ll give him protection.” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: “Assuming that all turns out, he’s like any other Australian, he’d be free to return home if he wished and he’s going through those processes.”  

Assange’s legal problems started in 2010, when he was arrested in London at the request of Sweden on two counts of rape and molestation allegations, which were later dropped. In 2012, while facing extradition to Sweden Mr. Assange jumped bail and sought refuge inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London where he lived for almost seven years. When his asylum was revoked by Ecuador in May 2019 he was jailed to 50 weeks for breaching his bail conditions and remained in Belmarsh Prison ever since. Two days after ruling against his extradition to the US, district judge Vanessa Baraitser refused his bail application.

Elon Musk’s new Starship SN8 has taken off but came down with a boom

The world’s most advanced rockets and spacecraft company, SpaceX, reached yet another important milestone in their goal to conquer the universe, with the launch of its latest Starship prototype, SN8 (SN – serial number). The aforementioned rocket, the eighth in the series of SpaceX’s prototypes named Starship, and the first to have a nose cone and stabilizing body flaps, took off at 5:45 pm EST (2245 GMT) on December 9th from the site in Boca Chica, Texas. The epic explosion on its return did nothing to daunt Elon Musk’s spirits, who later that day tweeted: “Mars, here we come!”

By performing complex aerial manoeuvres like flying parallel with the ground and rising to an altitude of 12.5 km – compared to its SNS predecessors which only reached 150 m -, as well as providing important information regarding RUD (Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly), the SN8 Starship flight was considered to be a huge success. Mr. Musk had initially put the odds of SN8 at three to one. He said in another tweet: “Fuel header tank pressure was low during landing burn, causing touchdown velocity to be high & RUD, but we got all the data we needed! Congrats SpaceX team hell yeah!!” The intended mission of this aircraft is to carry goods and people into orbits close to Earth at a capacity of 100 tones.

One confusing thing when it comes to the name of Starship is that both, the entire rocket, and the upper part are called the same. The system consists of two stages. The first stage is called Super Heavy and this is the booster of the entire Starship system. As a first stage vehicle, Super Heavy is intended to have 37 engines called Raptors – the most ambitious rocket engine ever made. This will give it double the power used by Saturn V, the US rocket used in their crewed missions to the Moon.

The second stage, SN8 is expected to house six Raptors in its final design, however for this flight only half were used. In comparison, Falcon 9, uses nine Merlin 1D engines on the first stage and a single optimized Merlin engine called V-Mac on the second stage. Its SNS predecessors have used one of SpaceX’s Raptor engines; not all were launched, with some only used for ground tests. The previous altitude record of 150 m was achieved by the stubby Starhopper, SN5 and SN6. SN8, a 50-meters-tall stainless-steel spacecraft is much more complex, separating itself from the previous atmosphere-penetrating shape of space rockets.

During the mission, every part except the capsule with the crew was thrown away. A Starship is expected to be fully recyclable with both stages returning to Earth. Mr Musk estimates the costs will be a few million dollars instead of 1bn, as well as cheaper to build. The estimated time for when an entire Starship will fly is still an unknown, however Mr. Musk said he is confident the first crewed Mars mission will launch by 2026. SpaceX is building multiple Starship prototypes and the SN9 rocket is expected to launch soon.

The Pfizer/BionNTech vaccine is here but there is still a long way to go

Paving the way for mass vaccination, the UK is the first country in the world to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. The emergency authorization came on December 2nd, and in less than a week, on December 8th at 6:31am, the first jab was administered to a 90-year-old grandmother at University Hospital Coventry and Warwickshire. Britain’s medicines regulator, the MHRA, said the jab offers up to 95 per cent protection and according to Pfizer 800,000 doses have already been sent to the UK.

The UK has ordered 40m doses of the mRNA vaccine also known as BNT162b2 – enough for 20m people – with 4m expected to arrive by the end of the year, and the rest throughout 2021. The vaccine will be given as two injections, 21 days apart and will be imported from the site in Puurs, Belgium, where is being produced. Immunity is achieved after the first dose, reaching its maximum effect seven days after the second dose. 73,000 people across a range of ages and ethnicities took part in the clinical trials – half of which were given the active vaccine.

Britain’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommended that the first phase should prioritize the vulnerable groups: starting with care home residents and their carers, frontline health, social care workers and those aged 80 years or over, decreasing every five years to the age of 50. This is expected to be achieved by the end of April.

Because the vaccine must be stored at -70C, and hospitals already have the facilities to store it, in practicality, the first vaccines will likely go to NHS staff, home staff and patients. It will be transported in special boxes of up to 5,000 doses, packed in dry ice, has 10 days to reach the destination, the destination country can choose to store it in a “freezer farm” for up to six months at -70C, and once delivered it can be stored up to five days in a fridge. Once out it needs to be used within six hours. 

BNT162b2 is the fastest vaccine to ever be created – taking only 10 months from concept to reality – this is due to regulators using a rolling review system which allowed them to study results as they became available. To truly protect everyone, inoculation needs to happen in large numbers and there are several factors to be considered. The logistics behind vaccinating enough people will pose a great challenge even to countries with strong health infrastructure like the UK. Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the rollout “one of the biggest civilian logistical efforts” the UK has ever faced.

For large parts of Africa, Asia, and South America, which do not have sufficient storage and cooling facilities in “the last mile” delivery stages, rolling out the vaccine will “pose the biggest challenge,” German logistics giant Deutsche Post DHL said. Another major concern is the vaccine hesitancy or the so called “anti-vax movement.” This is regarded as one of the top 10 threats to global health by WHO and could cause attaining herd immunity difficult to achieve.

Britain has moved incredibly quickly, and this might be seen as a political move by other countries. The head of America’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was summoned to the White House on December 1st and asked to explain why his agency has not moved forward with the Pfizer vaccine.  Both the FDA and the European Medicines Agency have scheduled meetings for regulatory approval in the following weeks. An FDA advisory committee released on Tuesday a briefing document containing data on the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which is to be reviewed this week for emergency authorization in the United States. Other trial results vaccines, including Moderna, Oxford/AstraZeneca, Sputnik V and Wuhan Institute of Biological Products are expected in the coming weeks.

Robot Judges And The Chinese Cyber Courts

China has made great efforts trying to integrate artificial intelligence to help with their everyday lives, and legal services is one of the many sectors that China is hoping to transform with AI technology. Its growing number of internet-based businesses along with 850 million internet users have led to the emergence of Chinese digital courts.

The world’s first internet court was established in 2017, in the eastern city of Hangzhou – an emerging technology and e-commerce hub -, and one of the most prosperous cities in Zhejiang Province, mainland China.

Operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the Chinese internet courts, now include millions of legal cases decided by “smart courts.” The system aims to enable users to complete judicial procedures and allows for communication through text and messaging services. Legal cases can be registered on the internet and there is no need for citizens to appear in court.

In December 2019, the country’s Supreme People’s Court (SPC) released a report on the court’s activities: more than 3.1 million legal activities have been handled from March to October, and 1.16 million citizens have registered, along with 73,200 lawyers.

The purpose of AI in legal cases is to ease the workload of humans at a fast pace and with higher accuracy, while human judges observe the process and make major rulings. The smart courts in Hangzhou only deal with cases involving legal disputes over digital matters like internet trade concerns, copyright issues and online product sales.

Following the success in Hangzhou, China launched similar operations in Beijing and Guangzhou. More than 90 percent of the courts nationwide are now using some form of online tools to help with cases.

The “mobile micro courts,” a pilot project designed  to offer “one-stop services” like filing, hearing, mediation and evidence exchanges was launched at the beginning of last year, in 12 provincial-level regions, according to SPC.

On June 27, 2019 Beijing Internet Court has launched an online litigation service centre, claimed to be “the first of its kind in the world,” to bring AI judges to court.

The AI judge has a body, facial expressions, voice, and actions all modelled off one of the court’s female judges. Based on intelligent speech and image synthesizing technologies, the AI judge’s role is to help the court judges complete “repetitive basic work” like litigation and online guidance.

The online service centre also includes a mobile micro court which deals with filing, mediation, court hearings, and inquiries through mobile phones, as well as an official Weitao account, which allows for live communication and legal publicity.

Since then, many countries have implemented artificial intelligence to help with legal services. Estonia could soon be using AI judges “to clear court backlogs by adjudicating in small claims of up to £7,000,” according to a Telegraph report released last month. The same report claimed that “robot judges will be commonplace in the UK within 50 years.”

Terence Mauri, an expert in AI and the founder of Hack Future Lab, a global think tank based in London, said these virtual judges will be able to detect dishonesty “with 99.9 percent accuracy,” at an unprecedented speed, and human bias or error will become a thing of the past. This will lead to “far less” innocent people being convicted for a crime they did not commit.

He also predicted that senior judges, barristers and solicitor advocates will survive the process, while other legal roles – including solicitors, chartered legal executives, paralegals, legal secretaries, and court clerks, won’t. They risk being replaced by AI.

What should Silicon Valley expect from a Biden-Harris administration?

As the world embraces a more collaborative way of working, with many companies moving their businesses online, the tech world is undergoing an intense scrutiny, with one question lingering on everyone’s mind – what will happen to Big Tech under a Biden-Harris administration – and while there are several speculations, one thing is certain: their favourite law – Section 230 – seems to be under imminent threat.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, introduced in 1996 by two US congressmen, Chris Cox (Republican, California) and Ron Wyden (Democrat, Oregon), often described as the foundation of modern Internet, it is the federal law which gives tech companies immunity, and protects platforms like Facebook, Twitter, etc., from becoming liable for their users’ content if they choose to moderate it.

Flourishing under the 44th president Barack Obama, and enjoying decades free of major regulation, in the recent years, the tech industry and its growing power seem to have lost the support it once had in The White House, becoming a major issue during the 2020 United States presidential elections.

This is mainly attributed to privacy and antitrust issues, as well as the monopoly a few key players hold.

While president Donald Trump and president-elect Joe Biden do not agree on much, revoking Section 230 appears to be on both their agendas.

 In august 2019 president Trump drafted an executive order which would require the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) to create rules that would limit Section 230 shields. Critiques of the lawmaker’s proposals deemed the order as unrealistic.

On October 6, the House Judiciary Committee released a 449-page report written by Democrats, following a 16-months investigation into the antitrust issues, which was centred around the monopoly of the four major players in the tech field: Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple.

The report, which contained the word monopoly 120 times according to a BBC report, and which accused the US giants of charging high fees, forcing the start-ups companies the Section 230 was meant to protect, into unfavourable contracts, concluded:

“To put it simply, companies that once were scrappy, underdog start-ups that challenged the status quo have become the kinds of monopolies we last saw in the era of oil barons and railroad tycoons. By controlling access to markets, these giants can pick winners and losers throughout our economy. They not only wield tremendous power, but they also abuse it by charging exorbitant fees, imposing oppressive contract terms, and extracting valuable data from the people and businesses that rely on them.”

Although the recommendations were not considered to be bi-partisan, there seems to be some common ground between the parties.

Republican congressman Jim Jordan rejected the report and said it enhanced “radical proposals that would refashion antitrust law in the vision of the far left.”

Republican Ken Buck has said he agrees with most of the findings: “Antitrust enforcement in Big Tech markets is not a partisan issue. But an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure – I would rather see targeted antitrust enforcement over onerous and burdensome regulation that kills industry innovation.”

Bill Russo, the deputy press secretary of the US president-elect, had a series of tweets last week in which he attacked Facebook over its handling of disinformation during the US election. For some this is an indication on the approach a Biden administration would take.

While Conservatives view Section 230 as a matter of censorship and bias, Democrats are more concerned with tackling issues such as disinformation, intrusion, and monopoly.

Even if president Trump and president-elect Biden, both said they want Section 230 revoked, the underlying reasons are very different, and so will be the process in which it is going to be handled.

Experts say revoking Section 230 entirely seems improbable, but we will definitely see stricter regulations regarding data privacy and antitrust issues.

Over the past couple of years, tensions between Europe and the United States have increased exponentially, however since the EU Court of Justice invalidated the EU-US Data Protection Shield 2016/1250 in July 2020, there have been ongoing negotiations between the European Commission and the US.

A Biden-Harris administration could be aligned with the EU in their views of controlling Big Tech powers.

How can media practioners avoid reducing conflict to spectacle?

We live in a world dominated by visuals and media is the prime source in deciding which images are more representative than others. Media represents the basis for our collective memory of events and undeniably, images of conflict, of war stand at the core of how history is taught and remembered, hence the importance these images carry and the tendency to manipulate the media. This paper is going to investigate different periods of conflict and interrogate the choices made by media practitioners, in deciding which images to use in portraying the war but most importantly, to question the factors that helped in making those decisions.  It is widely understood that photographs that depict suffering, chaos and misery are of more interest to the public and the increasing dominance of visual media leads to spectacularisation. Can media practitioners avoid reducing conflict to spectacle? It is crucial to understand that not only conflict, but everything seems to be reduced to appearance, to representations of things and that these representations only have an impact when integrated in certain contexts or narratives.  Media are not separate from us or imposed to us, we are part of it. From a Foucauldian  perspective, this phenomenon requires a closer look at “how truth effects are produced within discourses that are neither true nor false”, Orgad (2014:12) meaning we should invest more time and resources, in comprehending that both media and the public play an active role in the decision-making` of which events become more truthful than others. What Foucault is saying is that we only have access to different versions of truth and these versions of truth are always determined by dominant discourses. A western society best characterised by globalisation and capitalism needs to be wary of the versions of the truth existent and at how these versions of truth are validated through dominant discourses that always entrenches an ideology, an agenda.

Many scholars suggest the ways in which truth is perceived is intertwined with how visual narratives make us feel.  We need to look beyond the image itself and focus on the genre of image that it represents. Cottle (2006:13) argues that media representations of conflict can only be entirely understood once the social, economic, cultural and political aspects and interferences within these are considered. He introduces ‘the paradigms of media consent’, with the argument that although media are used to legitimise capitalist consumerism, it is not independent or free from the influences of audiences with whom it is deeply connected, and more importantly from those of politics. Capitalist consumerism needs to adapt to the buyer’s needs. Declining audiences have led corporate media to look for various ways to secure the viewer’s interest. (Cottle, 2006:13,17). On the premise that media are an integral part of our everyday lives, all representation is important and if everything is reduced to spectacle, we need to question what happens to our sense of identity.  In a society driven by capitalist consumerism, one dictated by audiences and media themselves, can media practitioners at all, avoid reducing conflict to spectacle?  Scholars claim that it is more complicated than that and both media and audiences are in a continuous change and will always find ways to adapt and understand the new dynamics.

The Vietnam War is known to be extremely visual by giving access to numerous journalists and photojournalists to document the war freely and as a result, tens of thousands of photographs were taken and published but only certain images became iconic. Griffin justifies this by saying the meaning of an image is never contained by the image, but to consider that the image represents a culture. This type of access meant that along the story of Vietnam, the story of US was going to be told as well and this will lead to some sort of identity crisis. Americans were suddenly confronted with the fact, their soldiers were responsible for the mass killings of Vietnamese civilians and so, these images came to reflect those anxieties. According to Griffin, media representations of war shape the way in which history is portrayed, for three different reasons. The importance it has for the public, labelling it as journalism at its best, the imposed norms of cultural representation and the influence that politics and other forms of power have over the media. Griffin’s worry is that the emphasis in displaying images of war, it has lost its “verisimilitude and objectivity”. Griffin (2010:119) Multiple examples of staged photographs are justified as being “the only way to communicate the overwhelming experiential reality of war.” Griffin (2010:119). This trend has been reinforced and celebrated the emergence of awards like the Pulitzer prize or World Press, which tend to favour some images and not others, in particular images of destruction and suffering. Governments and media outlets have historically been known to have an involvement in which photographs were published and the ones that do are never representative. As an example, thinking about the Vietnam War, photos like ‘Accidental Napalm’ and ‘Rough Justice on a Saigon Street’ were used considerably more often and earlier than photos of the My Lai massacre, which have been considered to be much more informative and insightful. By the end of WWII every country involved had trained up photographers for propaganda purposes. It is precisely what Griffin was dreading most. The state, media corporations or even individual photographers’ interests to influence the norms in which cultural representation is depicted over the historical evidence, represents the biggest threat in delivering the truth. There seems to be a degree of consensus amongst media practitioners that images that depict dramatic scenes are of more relevance than others in the formation of public moral response, but history has repeatedly showed us this is not always true.

“History becomes irrelevant and the photograph’s institutional use fixes it to particular national, cultural and professional myths. Moreover, certain types of photographs, especially those that emphasise dramatic aesthetic form but lack specific historical detail, most readily lend themselves to this abstraction process”. Griffin (2010:18)

Staging a photograph raises various questions in relation to the authenticity of the event pictured and the message transmitted across. As mentioned above, if understanding an image is immediately linked with the understanding of the ideology behind it, we need to ask ourselves to what extent are we willing to trust a corporate media driven by consumerism. While this type of conspiracy might be true to some extent, it is also recognised that audiences are suffering of what Susan Moeller calls ‘compassion fatigue’, pain and sufferance being sold like any other media content meaning that due to the explosion of images invading our everyday lives we become unsensitized, and we will only react to specific representations and the reason for that is the familiarity with which these images help us make sense of a certain moment in time. Don McCullin, one of the world’s greatest living war photojournalists, in an interview he gave on CNN to Christiane Amanpour, who like the late Marie Colvin advocates for the journalism of attachment, speaks about war, humanity and journalism today.  His most celebrated photograph, entitled Shellshocked US Marine, Hue, depicting the portrait of a bewildered American soldier is exactly the type of image that came to be associated with the Vietnam War. McCullin speaks about the impact this one image had on his career, by criticising precisely the notoriety it brought with it, somehow cancelling all his earlier and later work on war and Vietnam and all the sufferance that came with it. He accuses today media of being narcissistic, of hiding things which, he says, will lead to the sufferance of people. What McCullin points out is that, it is not so much about staging a photograph or not, but about the emotional effort invested into that particular photograph and being emotionally invested is one way of reducing conflict to spectacle.

            Barbie Zelizer, one of the biggest figures in visual communication studies, claims that all types of war images fall into genres, categories and what needs to be analysed most of the time when trying to understand such images is the message transmitted about a particular conflict through this kind of image. She is well known for her ability to present a photograph, pull it apart and analyse it thoroughly. On the premise that all images follow an ideology, based on the relationship between visual representation and globalization, she asserts that people are uncapable of looking at an image without considering the cultural background or dominant discourse represented and end up with less than it was expected. The reason for that is that all images look alike. The photograph is never analysed based on what it depicts, but rather on the meaning, the visual discourse. The way we respond to these images is always collective even if it feels very individual. Zelizer, like many other theorists including Griffin thinks that images of war “do not emerge from a vacuum” Zelizer (2004:115) advices that in order to make sense of a contemporary conflict one needs to consider the historical precedents. In her work ‘When War is reduced to a photograph’, she insists we should focus on the entire process that occurs in delivering that image. To find that one photograph that will provoke an emotional reaction from the general public . To create the right moral response there needs to be a structured system and that is the media. People remember an image when that image stirred fear, sadness, joy, anger, envy, excitement and so on. The main point Zelizer is making is that the right moral response of an audience depends entirely of the emotional state created, for which it is crucial for that photography to be represented through the appropriate means. She describes war images as usually being bigger or more memorable and that they have more of an impact than it is let to believe. She continues by saying that what they do instead is undermine news judgement and the impact on public perception. Zelizer (2004:116) By aestheticizing the picture, emotions are created, she mentions the dust in Afghanistan created by the colours of the sand that produces lovely effects in images of the Iraq war, but it also creates  a generic form of representation and all wars, protests, loss of life look like the one before them. Her biggest concern is that putting too much importance on aesthetics threatens news judgement, and images free from any journalistic criteria, become the foundation in forming public opinion:

“…the availability of cues – whether they have to do with frequency, aesthetic appeal, or familiarity – help reporters, photographers, photo editors and news editors make judgements about which photographs should depict a given circumstance of war. All this matters because it is not the photograph’s referentiality – its ability to present the world as it is – that endures in journalism’s turn to the visual” (2004: 130)

Zelizer talks extensively about images of death and what they represent and more recently, in her book titled About to Die: How news images move the public, Zelizer analyses over sixty images of people who are photographed when they are about to die and discusses the moral implications in taking and publishing those images. She demands the audiences that in the same way they want to read about death, they should be able to see it too as this is the only way to understand the whole truth. To understand the entire truth, one must feel something, and news cannot be a vessel of truth otherwise.

            Lilie Chouliaraki, Media and Communication Professor at London School of Economics has also written extensively on images of war, disaster, poverty and similarly to Zelizer, she too was interested in the liveness in the aesthetics of war images and what in philosophy is called  mimetic performativity, which produces sentimental commodification in news, but also in the importance of having and recognizing media as a moralizing force. She recognizes the importance of an audience who is educated in identifying a media that operates under the rightful practices in delivering an authentic and morally equitable message. She insists on the audiences need of the visual and a structured narrative that allows to make sense of things and takes a special interest in the way people have been responding to news images in particular. This leads to a special interest in humanitarianism and we will discuss later in this paragraph, the modalities she uses to connect the relationship between what she calls, “iconography” and the emotional investment necessary on behalf of the audiences to differentiate between feelings and objectivity. She also mentions Foucault multiple times in her research with his concept of “regimes of witnessing” to “bio-power” and “the body as a site of power”, the latter one representing much of her basis in her own research on the subject in matter. Her work is extremely vast and covers a wide terrain into the sphere of images of terror and the emotional implications of the audiences, and it will hopefully provide a set of ideas that will help us understand how to avoid reducing not only war, but everything to spectacle.

            In her book The Spectatorship of Suffering (2006) she speaks broadly about the ways war is represented in media and the public’s response to it. She says witnessing is never innocent and raises the issue of citizen journalism and the fact we always rely on recognisable images and narratives to tell us how we feel about things and that is where citizen journalism would create an incapacity to recognize the intended message. While she recognizes some of the benefits citizen journalism has, her main argument is that we rely entirely on the emotional payoff that will come after seeing a particular image and the part of media who is blind to the codes and practices of war journalism, might create a bigger gap between people and reacting to sufferance that it already exists. Journalists enact testimonial witnessing and audiences respond to it because they are familiar with it. In the same way it must be believed that audiences will mainly react and be empathetic towards what they find familiar. It is a therapeutic culture. She speaks about the “epistemology of authenticity” and argues that western societies are living in an age of hypermediacy – the need to be engaged with different images and voices and even more to be involved in it, by commenting on social media about how an image made them feel. Chouliaraki observes a transition from participatory to ‘monitorial’ citizens. There is however a difference in the ways audiences respond at images of suffering and she classes these into three categories: adventure – no emotional engagement, emergency – stirs pity and no more, and ecstatic – calls for engagement and this is the one we should be looking at. This made Chouliaraki raise the issue of how charity organisations can design their campaigns to ensure a certain kind of reaction. In her latter book The irony of spectacle, she gives a historical context on the mediation of suffering, using the human body as the common denominator we all share, and the loss of which we can all imagine. She talks about Foucault’s bio-power, in which discipline is exercised through interventions on the body without anyone noticing. She says that in order to understand that every communication is reduced to spectacle, we need to be emotionally invested, which will lead to public engagement which will then lead to humanitarianism and solidarity. From a humanitarian point of view, Chouliaraki is asking us to think about human vulnerability as a problem of communication. As a panellist member at the Humanitarian Congress in Berlin in 2015, she talks about distant suffering and visual access to the war zone and categorizes vulnerability into four representational patterns, where vulnerability becomes a form of spectacle that legitimises what she calls solidarity, which she defines as “the moral imperative to act on vulnerable others, an imperative that stamps from the urgency of the suffering body as it is being depicted in multiple forms in different modes of public communication.” YouTube (8:15). To understand suffering as a problem of communication we need to question the methodology through which certain representations seem to provide aid in human suffering. She addresses the question, of how do various iconographies of sufferance resolve the problem of representing human suffering of vulnerability, seen as representing suffering others is always absorbed in the ethics and politics of global power relations, particularly in the hierarchical division between West and the Global South. She advices the audiences to imagine the world beyond themselves but also their relationships to distant others. Historically, the aid charities campaigns in their representations of images of terror, have all been following a pattern of their time. While in the sixties, the aid campaigns were using images of photorealism about suffering as ‘bare life’, the first representational pattern of suffering, usually depicting multiple static, weak bodies, in distress and lacking individuality completely, the mid-eighties shifted to representing suffering as ‘tender-heartedness’. This time we have a photorealism of hope, of an active body, it is playful, there is eye contact, it is personalised; this produces a “gaze of reciprocity and gratitude” which leads to a solidarity of aid and development. YouTube (22:33) This type of iconography is what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu defines as misrecognition. The third iconography of suffering is the suffering as indignation, which is the singular individual against a mass – the demand for action. The difference between the latter and the first two is that the latter is used both in representations in the sixties in filmography like The Battle of Algiers, by Gillo Pontecorvo as well as in representations from the Arab Spring. We now have collective compositions; we have types of representation that cover several decades. The usual focus is on collective or individual bodies that represent groups or social classes of people who are brought together by a common cause. This invites to a form of solidarity that is represented by revolution and advocates for structural inequalities, but history proved this form of solidarity has also disillusioned massive parts of population, developing its own project of power. However, there has been a considerable shift in the ways audiences become solidary. The contemporary representational dilemma of humanitarianism is always suspicious, it always makes audiences question the possible hidden agenda behind an image:

“Why it is so difficult nowadays to become indignant and to make accusations or, in another sense to become emotional and feel sympathy –  or at least to believe for any length of time without falling into uncertainty, in the validity of one’s own indignation or one’s own sympathy?” Boltanski (1999:12)

As a response to this question, a new form of solidarity emerged, one that stems from the impossibility of representing vulnerability, suffering as self-reflexive spectacle. With the rise of new media, the need to question everything and the desire to feel involved, charity organizations changed their strategies. They no longer use photorealism, images of real humans representing a specific type of suffering, but move away to a playful interactivity, textual, like video games that allows the public to engage. However, these are not real people, the space represents the western safety and distant others are marginalised.  This return to the self is precisely what makes this kind of solidarity ironic, it diminishes the question of justification, it embodies a click and donate activism, a continuous quest to feeling good, but no moral discourse.  New media, politics and the marketization of the aid campaigns are the factors that seem to advantage a corporate entity rather than the ones in need.

            It can be observed that all theorists mentioned above are interested in very similar concepts when analysing images of terror. While they all agree, the main focus should always be on the moral response, a certain type of image produces, the contextualization through which it is delivered must be looked at from multiple angles. Both Zelizer and Chouliaraki insist on the power of aesthetics, for the capacity it has in delivering the right moral response. Zelizer thinks that the right moral response of the audiences depend entirely of the emotional state created and like Chouliaraki and Griffin, she insists on the importance of having narratives that help us make sense of things. Chouliaraki, also puts an emphasis on having an educated audience in identifying a media that uses journalistic criteria to deliver the right message, that ultimately leads to humanitarianism. Cottle and Griffin ask us to think what happens to our identity in a society where media is used to legitimise capitalist consumerism. However, while Cottle agrees that the media is not interdependent or free from politics and audiences, Griffin believes that certain images become more iconic than others and these images represent an entire culture. Can media practitioners avoid reducing conflict to spectacle? I believe that is more complicated than that and the answer would always depend on the politics and structural systems those type of institutions would follow.

References:

Boltanski, L. (1999) Distant Suffering: Morality, Media and Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 35-54

Chouliaraki, C. (2013) The Ironic Spectator: Solidarity in the Age of Post-Humanitarianism. Cambridge: Polity, pp. 26-53.

Chouliaraki, L. (2006) The Spectatorship of Suffering. London: Sage, pp. 70-96.

Griffin, M. (2010) “Media Images of War”. Media, War & Conflict: 3(1): 7-41

Orgad, S. & Seu, I. (2014) “The Mediation of Humanitarianism: Toward a Research Framework”. Communication, Culture & Critique, 7:6-36

Sontag, S. (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others. London: Penguin. pp. 85-106

Zelizer, B. (2004) “When War is Reduced to a Photograph”. In Allan, S., & Zelizer, B. (eds) (2004) Reporting War: Journalism in Wartime. Oxford: Routledge, pp. 115-135.

YouTube (2015) Distant Suffering – Visual access to the war zone   Available at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0-X9dYFgQw4&t=2935s  (Accessed: 08/01/2020)

YouTube (2016) Don McCullin on war, humanity and journalism today Available at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=749qwPhPrxo  (Accessed: 08/01/2020)

My experience onboard Independence of the Seas

Have you ever thought of taking a gap year, exploring the world, and expanding your cultural background by joining a cruise ship? If not, let me share my first experience as a casino croupier onboard Royal Caribbean’s cruise ship, Independence of the Seas.

It was the beginning of 2013 and I had just turned 26. I had arrived in London and stayed at one of the Holiday Inn hotels, one day prior to embarkation day. I remember feeling nervous and excited. I’d heard stories from my friends about ship life, but now it was my time to live them.

Next morning, after breakfast a shuttle was waiting outside the hotel to take us to Southampton – my homeport for the next six months. And there it was: this enormous 15-deck ship which accommodates 4370 passengers and is served by 1360 crew.

I was entering a whole new world that I knew nothing about. Terms like the gangway, OPP – Outbreak Prevention Plan, I-95 which is the main corridor, situated on deck 0,  crossing the ship almost entirely and the main place from where crew members gain access to their cabins, the crew areas and the guest areas were just a few of the words that I was ‘expected’ to know from my first day. I was clueless. The crew areas all looked the same to me and it took me over a week to learn the way back to my cabin.

Soon enough I’d learned that safety comes first. I believe that is fair to say that the words boat drill give most crew members anxiety. As a new-hire, you go through weeks of safety and security training. You are trained to first be a sailor, and then whatever position you’ve been hired for. There are at least two drills a cruise. One on embarkation day where all crew and passengers need to be counted for at their assigned master stations and one boat drill, where crew members are assigned to different rescue boats which they need to operate down and up the ship. They usually start early in the morning and everyone hates them.  You are also taught how to interact with guests to “Deliver the Wow”, and always and I really mean always, have a smile on your face.

Being part of the casino team onboard a ship is highly advantageous. Casinos are not allowed to be open whilst the ship is docked, therefore you get the chance to visit every place on the itinerary. You are also regarded as a staff member which allows you to use the staff facilities which can be considered higher standards and the guests’ areas if you wear a nametag and the appropriate attire.

Royal Caribbean has a zero-tolerance policy for fraternization with guests, violence, drugs use and any kind of sexual offence. Random drug tests are conducted periodically and there’s staff training of how to avoid putting yourself in a situation which could get you fired. Apparently, there are guests who come onboard with the intention to seduce crew members in pursuance of a lawsuit against the company. If you find yourself in any of the situations above or close enough, you are probably on a plane back home. A lot of people get fired for various reasons.

On the other hand, fraternizing with your fellow colleagues is quite encouraged and is very much happening. Exotic places, living in confined spaces for months and alcohol that costs next to nothing seem to be the perfect aphrodisiac for the members onboard.

But there’s more to ‘ship life’. It’s about all the people you meet. Before you know it, you’re living on a floating city with an average of 60 different nationalities eager to experience with you. It almost feels like London!

I learned many things about myself and the people around me when living at sea. Although some crew members choose to spend their free time amongst their ‘paisanos’- a term used to describe crew members from the same country -, there’s an impressive number of people from all type of different backgrounds, happy to learn from and about each other. The mix and crossing of cultures, customs, education, social background, all existing together harmoniously make the job worth it.

Travelling the seas and oceans, waking up in a new location every morning, making friends for life, taking part in social activities for crew members like pancake day, bingo nights, all-crew parties that usually have a theme where everyone makes an effort to fit the scene, the scrabble days, the numerous Independence Days in the celebration of the people working onboard, and the opportunity to witness some of the most memorable sunrises and sunsets I’d never imagined existed, were a few of the reasons that made up for sharing a small cabin, with a small bathroom and small wardrobes with another person.

My favourite place – Labadee, Haiti – a private island owned by Royal Caribbean that harbours one of the most turquoise waters and beautiful white sandy beaches I had ever come across in my travels. My favourite spot – a secluded beach twenty minutes away from the mainland, accessible by boat-taxi, exclusively to crew members. My own piece of paradise in a small gulf in the middle of the ocean, imposing itself through its lifelike green nature, surrounding the lively colours of the bay. Freshly fished lobster, a couple of Cuba Libres and the beats of some Caribbean music would create my perfect day.

My first contract took me to more than thirty different destinations, from the Mediterranean Sea, to the Nordic Fjords, to the Caribbean Sea. There’s sacrifices and there’s rewards. One year turned into two years – a time I will carry in my heart forever.

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