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Aired June 27, 2003 - 19:30:00   ET


ROBIN OAKLEY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Robin Oakley, in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENCE, where we bring together leading journalists to examine media coverage around the world.
The British Prime Minister Tony Blair is facing a war on two fronts. The death of six troops in Iraq is provoking fresh criticism of the government's post-war policy. And at home, the so-called dodgy dossier on weapons of mass destruction has left to a damaging row with the BBC.

Blair's communications chief, Alistair Campbell, is accusing the BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan of lying, but the BBC is refusing to back down over allegations that the government had sexed-up the dossier.

Joining me now, Suzanne Goldenberg, Washington correspondent for "The Guardian" newspaper and Con Conklin, executive editor of "The Daily Telegraph."

Suzanne, there's an extraordinary row between the government and the British Broadcasting Corporation over the so-called dodgy dossier. Alistair Campbell is demanding an apology from the BBC for suggesting that Blair took Britain into the Iraq war on a false basis, in particular over the claim that Saddam Hussein could launch weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes of the command being given.

So, is Alistair Campbell right? Did the BBC overdo the accusations? Or is it merely a case of attack being the best form of defense?

SUZANNE GOLDENBERG, "THE GUARDIAN": Well, I think in this case the government certainly has an interest in creating a diversion, as you've seen in " The Daily Telegraph" today. It shows that for the first time in more than 120 months there's -- the Conservative Party is ahead of Labor in the polls by two points.

I think the government desperately needs a diversion to detract attention from the very real question of what were the claims it was making before the war. Was it true that Iraq and Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat to the world? And increasingly worsening not just in Britain but in America doubt about that claim. It does not appear to be true.

OAKLEY: Con, is this a case of government panic, worry on so many fronts?

CON CONKLIN, "THE DAILY TELEGRAPH": Well, I think there's an element of that, Robin.

But I also think that the BBC does need to be called into account for some of the claims in made, in particular some of the claims that Andrew Gilligan has made. Some of his editorializing when he was in Baghdad during the war annoyed a lot of people and the claims that he's made on the basis of one single fact that he was told about the first dossier has really attracted a lot of attention and really caused many people to question the government's motives in going to war, and that's why we saw Alistair Campbell being so angry when he was before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee earlier this week.

OAKLEY: But isn't the government in a sense trying to have it both ways? The complaint seems to be that Andrew Gilligan's suggestion that the intelligence services have opposed inclusion of the 45-minute threat with a story based on a single source, but ministers themselves have admitted that their claim about the 45-minute threat was based on a single intelligence source.

CONKLIN: Well, yes, but I mean, the intelligence services had a single intelligence source during the Cuban Missile Crisis that told them where to look for the Cuban missiles, and of course that senior source then was a member of the Polit Bureau and was a very good source.

Now, the issue here is more to do with all the other insinuations that have been made on the basis of what Mr. Gilligan claims his source told him. Now, what we've established is that his source was not a member of the Joint Intelligence Committee, which drew up this document, so he's probably dealing with somebody who was on the outer loop of what was going on in Wyatt's Hall (ph) and has picked up some hearsay about what was going on with that dossier and how that dossier was put together.

GOLDENBERG: Once again, I'd like to say that I don't think the issue here is Andrew Gilligan, although I agree with you that he certainly did seem to annoy the government when he was in Baghdad. They did not like the tone of his reports, and I think that's feeding into the atmosphere that's prevailing now and the particular venom with which the government and Alistair Campbell in particular are going after Andrew Gilligan.

But the fact remains that this is a serious question that needs to be addressed, both in Washington and in London -- on what basis did these two countries go to war? Did Saddam pose an imminent threat to all of us, or could the weapons inspectors have been given a chance to do their work?

OAKLEY: The other element in all of this, of course, is the row over the allegations that the government sexed-up the different dossiers which it presented to the public, as reasonable backing for going to war.

Now, doesn't it seem very likely that the government did sex-up at least one of those dossiers, given that the governments in their very nature tend to sex things up. They're always embellishing the figures.

GOLDENBERG: Well, I think the inclusion of a certain doctoral thesis that was discovered on the Internet in one of the dossiers, you know, one can point fingers about that. That's quite a celebrated example of what the government did to try and make its case, and the extent to which it went to try and make its case.

Now it's deciding that if it can focus on Andrew Gilligan and shift attention towards an attack on a colleague of ours and on the BBC, that perhaps people will stop asking about weapons of mass destruction, will stop asking.


CONKLIN: But, Suzanne, with respect, you're mixing up your dossiers.

Andrew Gilligan's allegation is that Alistair Campbell sexed-up the first dossier. Now, the first dossier.


CONKLIN: . is not at all sexy. It is a very straightforward document. It has a foreword by Tony Blair that was actually approved by the Joint Intelligence Committee, and there's nothing sexy about it at all.

And, again, this is one of Gilligan's allegations, that this document, not the second one, with the Californian doctoral thesis, the first dossier is the one that Gilligan claims Campbell sexed up. And that does not seem to be true, just look at it.

OAKLEY: Let me turn you both to a slightly wider question here. Is this reporting now in a way sections of the media getting their own back on the government for winning a way which those sections of the media opposed all along and predicted would come to a bad end -- Suzanne.

GOLDENBERG: I think that's an unfair charge. I think the most basic kind of questioning that can happen now is, you know, to find out why we went to war.

We were led to believe that as soon as American and British forces were in control of Iraq, then we would see these arsenals, and indeed U.S. search teams went there to find these arsenals, but they haven't, you know, they haven't been produced.



CONKLIN: I mean, part of the intelligence assessment before the war was that Saddam had a very sophisticated concealment operation for his weapons of mass destruction. Nobody every said it would be easy to find these weapons. That's one of the reasons why we lost patience with the inspectors, because of the games that Saddam and his acolytes were playing over the inspections process.

And let's not forget that for 12 years Saddam defied the will of the U.N. and Security Council Resolution 1441 made it very clear that the onus was on Saddam to come clean about the weapons of mass destruction. It wasn't for us to show that he had them, it was for him to show that he didn't have them. And he never did that. And that's why we went to war.

OAKLEY: But the British public, at least, was expecting, from what politicians in this country said, that weapons of mass destruction would be found comparatively soon, and it looks as though the government is paying quite a heavy penalty for the failure to discover those weapons of mass destruction.

The Tory's, the conservative opposition in the lead in the opinion polls for the first time in 11 years, only one person in four believing the government -- Suzanne.

GOLDENBERG: That's true. I mean, people -- this isn't just Andrew Gilligan who has questions about weapons of mass destruction. It is the British public, and similarly, there are questions now being raised in the U.S., a similar process is going on in the U.S., although it hasn't reached the sort of boiling point that it seems to have here, this week.

OAKLEY: Con, how far are the government's troubles going to go on this?

CONKLIN: Well, I think the government is troubled, and I thin that's one of the reasons why it is being so robust over the issue of the dossiers, because there's that allegation that the dossiers were deliberately created to mislead the British public. It's a very serious charge. And I think the intelligence community in this country is going to back their government and say, "No, we didn't do this. This is the threat that was perceived by the West in general."

I mean, as you know, I followed Saddam very closely for a number of years. Frankly, when that dossier, the first dossier, was published, there was nothing in it that I didn't know. It was available to anyone who knew the literature available at the United Nations.

And this literature had been compiled over a decade of inspections looking at Iraq, and there was a genuine concern within the Western intelligence community -- and by that I mean -- I include France and Germany, not just Britain -- about the threat posed by Saddam to the Middle East.


OAKLEY: Is there a particular danger for the British government here in that this is a government perceived by the public to be highly dependent on PR techniques and media management, and that is why it's being hit particularly hard by the dodgy dossier allegations?

GOLDENBERG: I think so. I think so. And I think also the nature of Tony Blair's leadership has been, "You can trust me. I will know to do the right thing. You can trust me on that."

And that means that there is a very great loss of confidence in him here, if he is seen to be lying, or if people who work for him are seen to be lying.

OAKLEY: Suzanne Goldenberg and Con Conklin, thank you both very much.

GOLDENBERG: Thank you.

OAKLEY: Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, newspeak, doublespeak and the thought police. 100 years since George Orwell's birth, and his work and his warnings seem more prophetic than ever, when we come back.



TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MIN.: Weapons of mass destruction.

GEORGE W. BUSH, U.S. PRESIDENT: Weapons of mass destruction.

DONALD RUMSFELD, U.S. SECY. OF DEF.: Weapons of mass destruction.

BUSH: Regime change.

RUMSFELD: Regime change.


BLAIR: The regime has to change.

BUSH: Axis of evil.


OAKLEY: Is this the new newspeak, words that perhaps define our time and which some say have plunged us into an Orwellian world?

But how dangerous is the political language of today, and are the media part of the propaganda?

This week is George Orwell's centenary. The man who brought us books like "Animal Farm" and "1984."

To discuss this, I'm joined now in Washington, D.C. by Christopher Hitchens, contributing editor to "Vanity Fair" and author of the book "Why Orwell Matters."

Christopher, George Orwell introduced us to thought police, double think, un-person. Now we talk of ethnic cleansing, for example, when what we mean is killing people for the color their skin or their religion.

How close are we to Orwell's nightmare?

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, AUTHOR: Well, we've never been far from it. He didn't invent any of these categories or dilemmas. He just was very good at pointing them out. The tendency, in other words, for human beings to employ euphemism, which predates the 20th century, of course, but reached a particular apogee in the 20th century, particularly that of nice words or polite words for nasty things.

You gave a couple of examples. I suppose another very important recent one would have been collateral damage as a means of describing dead civilians, fo example. That, I think, by the way, has probably been laughed out of court now. I don't think anyone would come to the podium of the Defense Department and say collateral damage anymore.

So, you know, one ones a round every now and then, but the thing is to beware always of the next attempt, and to beware of it in oneself as well as in other people.

OAKLEY: How much of politics.

HITCHENS: For example -- I'll give you an example of what I mean, if I may, you know, on the other side of this argument, the nonofficial language.

People who say, "No war with Iraq." Do they mean we have no quarrel with Saddam Hussein? Are they trying to make what they really mean sound a bit better than what it really is? Or are they trying to prettify it a little bit?

In other words, one has to beware of it in the general language in one's own discourse as well as in official propaganda.

OAKLEY: Makes one think of diplomats being defined as people who are sent abroad to lie for their country.

How much of politics now is manipulation of the kind that Orwell scorned? Isn't it significant that in the U.K. for example Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair's communications director, is often referred to as the real deputy prime minister?

HITCHENS: Well, yes, that's extremely significant. I mean, it's part of the degeneration, I think, of the journalistic process as well as the political one.

I mean, in the city where I'm talking to you from, Washington, D.C., there's a kind of revolving door now between people who used to work at the White House, often as, say, speech writers or presenters of the government line, and the chairs in television studios and editorial columns and elsewhere. It's rather too smooth a transition, in my opinion, and it's led to a great public cynicism.

Everyone now thinks that everything is spin, every when it's not. So people have kind of outsmarted themselves, if you see what I mean.

OAKLEY: Is there a kind of transition both ways, though? Are too many journalists now regarding themselves not as spectators or commentators in the stands but as participants on the field of play?

HITCHENS: Well, that wouldn't be quite as bad. I mean, those who want to attract the attention of power and develop their journalism is such a way as to get a job at the White House are one thing. I mean, there are people in Washington, as everyone knows, that have done it that way around.

Those who want to be in journalist because they have a strong view are fine by me, as long as they don't attempt to conceal it. What one objects to as far as journalism masquerading as objective. But I'm sure I'm not the only person who came into the journalistic profession, you know, hoping to impose my self a bit and my own opinions -- hoping to earn the right to do so, but to do so in any case.

OAKLEY: What about the whole way in which the political process and world events are now manipulated?

We've just lived through, for example, G8 summit in Evian, and yet another Euro summit, and we troop along, hundreds, thousands of journalists, to these occasions to listen to them go through a precooked agenda and produce a prewritten communiqu‚. It's virtual politics, isn't it?

HITCHENS: Well, this was actually analyzed very well some years ago, I mean, in between Orwell's death and now, as a matter of fact, by Daniel Borstein (ph), a great American historian who was for a long time a librarian of Congress. And he invented the concept of the pseudo-event or what he actually the media event -- things that would not happen if the press and TV were not there. Things that are entirely produced in order to create a media effect and form part of a sort of a feedback loop of public relations propaganda, manipulation and so forth.

This is irritating and it's probably corrupting. I don't think it deserve the title of Orwellian.

Orwell's idea of newspeak was that it was part of a coercive system, where certain thoughts were literally to be unutterable. In other words, not that you'd be afraid to speak them, but you wouldn't have the language in which you could express them. That's absolutism. That's quite different, I think, from this smoothing attempt, which is often one that's made to flatter public opinion rather than to bully it.

OAKLEY: And over something like the war in Iraq, do you see Orwellian echos there? I mean, public and politicians were led to support military action on the basis of intelligence reports that could only be partially presented to them. They were told, "No, we can't tell you what's really said here because, of course, that would be endangering the sources of this information. You've simply got to trust us, that that is the reason for what we're doing."

HITCHENS: Yes. That's not Orwellian at all. That's just the old story about truth being the first casualty in war, and it's the difference between research and propaganda -- or (UNINTELLIGIBLE) information and propaganda, or agitation and propaganda, as the Communists used to say. There's nothing Orwellian about it.

OAKLEY: So where do you see the.

HITCHENS: If there is an Orwellian element to the Iraq business, I take the rather old fashioned line, that a man like Saddam Hussein, who as recently as last year organized a referendum for his own re-election, in which he claimed 100 percent turnout as well as 100 percent vote, and demanded that his subjects not just agree with him or not disagree but that they actually adore him, that they give their ascent to him, that they surrender to him, they prostrate themselves before him -- that was the Orwellian bit about Iraq.

The totalitarian threat, in other words, that Orwell identified, has by no means gone away. And the same would hold true for Kim Jong Il in North Korea.

OAKLEY: So, finally, Christopher, what do you think would be -- what would Orwell find the worst thing about the way in which politics and media presentation of politics has developed today?

HITCHENS: Well, I think he would despise the way in which it's become part of the entertainment industry.

Don't forget that in "1984" there's also "A Brave New World" element of just keeping people happy by producing for them not only cheap gin but cheap entertainment, semi-pornographic literature, constant distractions of this sort, lotteries. It's not all fear and terror. A lot of it is, you know, bribery and hedonism.

And I think that the way that everything's become part of an attempt to entertain, and the distinction between that and any kind of hard discussion or information, would depress him, because he was quite a puritan in his way, in what I would call the positive sense of the word.

OAKLEY: Christopher Hitchens, in Washington, thank you very much.

HITCHENS: Thanks for asking me.

OAKLEY: That's all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Tune in again next time for another look at how the media are handling the big issues.

I'm Robin Oakley. Thanks for joining us.



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