How I reported from Syria with a smartphone

is the BBC Middle East bureau chief. Twitter: @pdanahar

Paul Danahar's smartphone piece to camera

Governments which may be doing bad things don't really want you to know about it. In the old days controlling the message was much easier: they ran the TV, the radio, and newspapers. Word of mouth was kept quiet by a network of informers.

Then along came the internet and social media and the equation changed. It changed so much it helped topple some of the Arab world's most enduring dictatorships.

And it changed our capacity in the broadcasting industry to record those events.

The competition within the smartphone industry to give a new generation the instant interaction it demanded on social media handed us a tool that meant we could get the story out in broadcast quality with a piece of kit that fitted into our pocket. And during my recent trip to Syria it was all I had to work with.

The UN had been trying for more than 24 hours to get into the small Sunni Muslim village of Qubair to investigate reports of a massacre. When they finally did, I went with them.

My problem was that I was not in Syria for a TV reporting assignment, so all I had with me was my smartphone. The other problem we all faced, even those who had been given a visa for their cameraman, was that the internet was painfully slow.

The 3G network that used to allow the fast transfer of data was switched off, so all we had to work with on the ground was the telephone network. That meant I could still do two-way reports in phone quality and, because the SMS system was still working, I could send tweets which my colleagues in London then compiled into a text account of my day.

To file for TV, I used the phone's movie camera. I decided from the start to only shoot five-second bursts of footage.

Having spent much of my working life as TV producer, I knew the images I would need to tell the story and the order I would want to use them. So I shot short bursts of film, avoiding too many pans because everything was being shot hand-held. I concentrated on static shots.

The biggest problem was the sound. It was very windy, and that made at least one of the interviews unusable. But I found a secluded spot to interview an eyewitness and, because he was animated and shouting, it worked fine.

The piece to camera (above) was more troublesome. I wanted to record it in a house where I had found pieces of flesh and brain from the victims. It was shot by the BBC's fantastic Damascus producer Lina Sinjab, whose bravery during the conflict has been the reason people like me have been able to work.

When we looked back at the piece to camera, my voice was fighting to be heard over the villagers in the room with me. They were understandably angry and upset, and not in a state where you could ask them to keep quiet for a few minutes. But the piece to camera worked OK and it was certainly enough to convey the sentiment of the moment.

On the way back to Damascus, I selected the images I wanted to use and rendered them into individual emails. I wrote the track on the iTunes notes programme. Then I recorded it on the 'recorder pro' app which allows you to make a wav file. As soon as I walked into the hotel, I pressed send and watched the files slowly slide through.

In the end, because we didn't have proper kit producing high-quality but big files, what we did have went through much quicker than the other teams from Sky and the US networks which were on the ground with us.

They cut their pieces but they were taking far too long to go through the hotel internet line. In the end they had to book feeds out of Syrian TV long after our material was on air.

I certainly wouldn't have chosen to work in the way we did. It would have been better to have had the right equipment and a proper crew, and if it had been a less dramatic and urgent story our material would have looked less impressive against the opposition's output.

But, because of the desire of the world to see with their own eyes what we had witnessed first-hand, the TV editors in London and the audience at home considered immediacy their biggest priority - and that played exactly to the strengths of the only bit of kit we had.

This article has also been published by Broadcast.

Related content from the College of Journalism:

Video: Reporting with smartphones by BBC reporter Nick Garnett

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