My direct line to Benghazi

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Last Saturday night I got a Facebook message from a writer living in the North of England. He gave me the number of a contact in Benghazi and asked me to make use of it to help get word out of Libya at the height of the violence, or to pass it on.

I am a freelance journalist but not a workaday news reporter. I record packages for the Sunday Sequence programme on Radio Ulster and write for the Belfast Telegraph. Neither of these outlets were places where I could turn a big fee with a scoop from Benghazi.

I am not instinctively a scoop-grabbing hack, anyway, so I passed the information on, feeling I had discharged my responsibility. Then, thinking that was not enough and not expecting to get through anyway, I dialled the number.

"Hello."

There he was, Ahmed.

Ahmed was in a slightly frantic state of mind because he had watched Libyan soldiers fire heavy machine guns into the crowds of protesters. He had been to the hospital and been told that 120 people had died in the city that day. And he had driven home in fear of soldiers on the streets firing at cars.

I recorded our conversation by holding a digital recorder to the speaker phone, then uploaded the recording, unedited, to my blog, and went back downstairs thinking that this blogging business is a lot easier than straightforward current affairs journalism.

Consider what I would have to have done to get that interview on air as a reporter on a radio programme:

I would have had to consult a producer, who would have asked a few awkward questions like: who is the interviewee? Can you trust him?

The producer would have listened to the recording afterwards and made a few more points.

The sound quality is poor. It is too long.

With technical and scheduling considerations in mind, the producer might have consented to using two minutes of the ten that I had recorded.

If I had been a programme presenter, things might have been different, but I'm not.

And editorial thoughts would have occurred to the producer as well. Do we need to balance this?

Well, perhaps even the objective perspective would allow that an alternative view of the right to shoot protesting civilians is not to be accorded particular respect, but the question would be considered.

I was beginning to think that I work better without a producer.

I had enjoyed the ease with which I had got through to Ahmed and conveyed his story without having to so much as edit a cough out of it. But I had brought journalistic habits to the interview, at first.

I called Ahmed every night after that, and used a recorder taking feed direct from the phone line for better clarity.

I realised quickly another difference between the journalistic and the blogging approach. A journalist will hold a distance from the interviewee. There will usually be a preliminary chat in which the journalist is informal and even jocular, but there will be a designated moment at which the interview begins, and then the journalist will hold personality in check and interrogate. Interviewing for a blog doesn't work like that.

The blogger doesn't have a distinct interviewing persona. Not only does the blogger not answer to a producer; there is no need to even answer to any professional self image.

Still, common sense said this is about Ahmed, not me, so keep him talking; put direct questions to him. Let him say enough for the listeners to make an assessment of his personality, his integrity. For how else are they to judge him?

I, as blogger, had no authorial voice; no institutional reputation or backup. It wasn't only because I was free of scheduling that I could let Ahmed talk; I had to let him talk at length so listeners would get to know him - for the decision on whether to take him seriously or not was going to be exclusively theirs.

And we grew closer. He said he looked forward to my calls.

Comments on Facebook asked me to convey solidarity to him. It isn't for a journalist to join in common cause with a political activist.

Then I hit the drawbacks of the blogging approach.

The myth about blogging and social networking is that an individual at home on a computer can speak to the world. Actually, I would have been reaching a bigger audience on hospital radio.

And that wasn't fair to Ahmed, who was a busy and frightened revolutionary activist with a responsibility for getting news out to the world about life in Benghazi. He had shared the premature celebrations around the 'fall of Gaddafi'. He had described how people were divided on whether they should now return weapons to the commandos and trust them for protection.

Then the big media got interested.

Radio Ulster's Talkback called and asked if it could have Ahmed's number too, and then I saw another difference between journalism and blogging illustrated.

Professional journalists feel ownership of their stories. The producer who asked me for Ahmed did so very sheepishly; expecting to be refused.

I was only happy to pass on my new Libyan friend.

I wished I had done it more effectively when I first got his number. He was entitled to his audience. And there, for all the liberating potential of blogging, was the problem: if you need to get a message to the world, the old-fashioned media still does it better.

Malachi O'Doherty is the BBC Writer in Residence at Queens University Belfast. You can hear his interviews with Ahmed on writerslog.net.

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