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INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS

INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS

Aired July 25, 2003 - 19:30:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

SHEILA MACVICAR, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Sheila MacVicar, in London. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we bring together leading journalists to examine media coverage around the world.
It's a story about the storyteller and the spin doctor. A public broadcaster is under fire from the highest reaches of government. But for many, the BBC No. 10 row which drove Dr. David Kelly to suicide has become something of a who-done-it and why scenario, with both the BBC and the government having an equal share of critics.

And to the attack dog culture of both the British media and political establishment, are we starting to lose sight of the real issues at play here?

Here to help us try and make sense of all of this, Andrew Neil, publisher and broadcaster, Gaby Hinsliff, political correspondent for Britain's "Observer" newspaper, and Ray Snoddy, media editor for "The Times of London."

Andrew, let me begin with you. This week has seen yet a lot more blather about this story. We saw that press conference with Geoff Hoon and Jack Straw. Where's the follow-up come from this, do you think?

ANDREW NEIL, BROADCASTER: Well, the follow-up will come with the investigation begins. The independent investigator has been appointed. We are heading for what will be the British equivalent of our Watergate hearings. There will be a massive story.

MACVICAR: Watergate?

NEIL: This is huge. This goes straight to the center of government. It is the same question which Senator Baker asked throughout Watergate: what did you know? When did you know it? This goes straight to the office of 10 Downing Street and the prime minister.

MACVICAR: And the question, Gabby, is did the prime minister know that there either was a plan to somehow leak Dr. Kelly's name, or did he authorize the leaking of his name.

GABY HINSLIFF, "OBSERVER": Tony Blair has staked an awful lot on this. He's said categorically that he did not authorize and did not leak the -- did not authorize the leaking and did not leak the name of David Kelly to the media, but what he hasn't made so clear is whether he encouraged or directed the guessing game that the British media was invited to play, whereby if they could get the name, the government would instantly confirm that it was David Kelly.

And if it transpires that Blair was involved in all of that, then his leadership has never been under more severe pressure.

MACVICAR: Do you think there's any sign that the press is tiring of this?

HINSLIFF: Very little so far. We rarely tire of an argument between media and government.

NEIL: Does a dog tire of a bone? I don't think so.

MACVICAR: But, I mean.

NEIL: This is the biggest crisis the British government has ever faced.

RAY SNODDY, "THE TIMES OF LONDON": The key thing is that just when you think the story is going to quite down, when you think there isn't another angle, day upon day another angle comes up.

The BBC suddenly has got a tape of conversations with Dr. Kelly. You hear more about what's happening in the Ministry of Defense, and then of course last week it was the tragic death of Dr. Kelly himself, which was by far the most shocking event in the whole sequence.

NEIL: It's the death that changes the scale of this story. This is no longer a story for political anoraks about what did you say in your dossier versus what I said in my dossier.

This is a story about a decent man, working for the public, an honorable guy, who through a ruthless spin machine was forced into his suicide.

Now that is something that an audience of primetime sitcom watches could understand, and not just CNN or SKY NEWS.

HINSLIFF: There's something awful about describing it as a sitcom. It captures the flavor of what's going on in many ways.

(CROSSTALK)

NEIL: (UNINTELLIGIBLE). What I said was it's now of interest to an audience as wide as those who watch sitcoms or dramas. This is now a primetime story, not a story consigned to the niches of (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

MACVICAR: But isn't this becoming a little bit of sort of a little bit of Mabel gazing (ph). I mean, yes we do have the tragic death of Dr. Kelly and that clearly there is certain central and important questions to answer about who in government was responsible for that. But the initial story that sparked all of this off was about the reason why Britain went to war.

NEIL: True. The reason why Britain went to war has now cost a fatality at home, and it is all wrapped up in the weapons of mass destruction. Unlike the United States, where President Bush effectively said that we want to get rid of Saddam because we want regime change -- that was never the argument used by Mr. Blair.

MACVICAR: Well, he changed his mind several times, about (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

NEIL: Yes, but there was a broad range of reasons why America went to war. We went to war for one specific weapon. We were told Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and that he was about to use them. Neither of which has turned out to be true. And in the government's desperation to spin the fact that it was untrue has led to the death of the good guy. That's a story in anybody's language.

SNODDY: As Andrew says, the key thing is that this is a story with so many facets to it. It involves the relationships between the BBC and the government. It involves honest and dishonest in government. But as Andrew says, it goes to the heart not just of an information issue, but the very nature and character of this government and how -- if they have misled the British public on a most fundamental issue.

HINSLIFF: It's also part of a very long-running saga, and that's partly why it's caught fire.

This was not a row that just began with the death of David Kelly. This is a row between the BBC and the government, which has been going on since 1997. It's about the relationship between government and the media and whether or not either side believes the other one anymore.

It's kind of (AUDIO GAP) this dysfunctional marriage, really, which.

NEIL: But I think it's been decided, and all of the polls show 80 percent believe the BBC and less than 20 percent believe the government. The BBC's won that argument, and the government keep on arguing about it. They've got some ally's in the press, like Ray's paper, but other than that, the public's already made up its mind. The public believes the BBC, even though the BBC has questions to answer as well.

MACVICAR: But there's also a suggestion now from some quarters -- I think Chris Smith (ph) writing in one of the papers over the course of the last couple of days, that there may now be -- that the agendas are all over the place, and there may now be a real revenge motive operating against the BBC.

There has been a suggestion that, you know, the license fee, the this, the that, that the very essence of the corporation and what it does, its independence, could be challenged.

(CROSSTALK)

HINSLIFF: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Gave an interview this week in which he said that of course it was entirely separate they refused the BBC's charter. But we might just mention that since there's an inquiry ongoing, if it throws up any issues concerning the BBC, of course we must look at them. And that will sound to broadcasters like a very thinly veiled threat.

MACVICAR: It does sound like a very thinly veiled threat.

NEIL: Yes, but they make them all the time. Those of us that have been around for a while -- Harold Wilson, when prime minister in the 60's.

MACVICAR: And not that long.

NEIL: . hated the BBC. I was only two at the time. He hated the BBC, and threatened all manner of things. Nothing ever happened.

John Major, who I remember seeing him during the 1992 election, "BBC is treating me terribly. I'm going to get them."

Well, he got reelected, nothing happened. They huff and puff, but they're scared to do it.

A recent poll we did showed that 82 percent of people trust broadcast journalist. Only 10 percent trusted politicians.

SNODDY: I don't actually think -- the revenge motive might play for a short time, but the royal charter of the BBC is up for replacement in 2006. Id think we can afford to take a slightly longer perspective than we have been for this week.

And also, I mean, in the papers today about (UNINTELLIGIBLE) government review, this was announced months and months ago, and they said at the time that every single aspect of the BBC would be, as it should be, reviewed for a 10 year cycle. And indeed, one of the issues would be the woes and jitters of the government.

NEIL: There's no way the government is going to get rid of the BBC. Even if the BBC kicks it in the teeth.

A Labor government usually faces a pretty hostile press. Traditionally, it's an overwhelmingly Tory press, and indeed some of the papers that have been supporting Labor recently are now going back to the Tory fold, "The Sun" being one of them, which is looking a lot more Tory these days than before.

The only balance Labor thinks it has against a Tory Fleet Street is the BBC and the BBC's trusted more than the Tory press.

HINSLIFF: And (UNINTELLIGIBLE) myth of a Tory Fleet Street, but for the most part "The Times" and "The Sun" have been among the keenest defenders of the government in this whole affair.

(CROSSTALK)

HINSLIFF: The idea that somehow it's Downing Street, you know, kind of.

(CROSSTALK)

MACVICAR: There might be a competitive motive.

SNODDY: The attitude -- I'll talk about that, if you like, but I was just going to say that the attitude of some of the papers is wondrous to behold. The greatest enemy of the BBC, day after remorseless day, has been "The Daily Mail."

Now when there's problems with the Labor government, now "The Mail" does a flip-flop and is now a resolute supporter of the BBC, which is really interesting to see.

NEIL: "The Times," and "The Sun," and "The News of the World," all owned by Rupert Murdoch, are driven by Murdoch's agenda on this. Murdoch's hates the BBC.

MACVICAR: And Murdoch also has his own desires.

NEIL: And B-SKY-B is now the dominant nonpublic broadcaster in the country. ITV in this country is irrelevant. Channel 4 and Channel 5 are niche broadcasters. The big rival to the B-SKY-B now is the BBC, so why not kick it when it's down, and that's what Murdoch's papers are doing.

MACVICAR: Sure. Let's talk a little bit about what happens next, where this story goes. Obviously, there are many things that could happen, unexpected things that could happen. But we wait for the beginning of the inquiry, Lord Hutton's (ph) inquiry, which starts soon.

NEIL: I wouldn't be surprised if Mrs. Kelly, the widow of Dr. Kelly, before that, called for Geoff Hoon's resignation, the defense secretary's resignation, on the basis that he was behind the outing of Dr. Kelly as the main source.

MACVICAR: Do you believe -- we know that Geoff Hoon went to see Mrs. Kelly earlier this week. Do you believe that at that meeting he told her and her family what the circumstances were, precisely what -- how his name came to be identified?

NEIL: I believe that he tried to explain how the name got out, without him being behind it.

He was not believed. This is an intelligent, middle-class, well- educated family. Daughters were there as well. He was not believed, and I believe at the end of the meeting, she said that, I believe, "Given what you have done to my husband, you should resign."

And if you saw his face, which was ashen when he left that meeting, I think that's a pretty good conclusion.

MACVICAR: So, universal agreement that Geoff Hoon is.

HINSLIFF: With one proviso. We must all respect Mrs. Kelly's views, and I can absolutely understand why, if that's what she wants, she wants it, but for political reporters, it would be načve to think that the buck stops with Geoff Hoon.

NEIL: Oh, absolutely.

HINSLIFF: Geoff Hoon did not authorize some strategy by which the name would get out all by himself. Geoff Hoon is a Blairette (ph). He does what Downing Street wants, and there's no way in which the blame for this can rest solely on his shoulders.

We should be looking much further up towards the top of the food chain.

NEIL: We'll pick them off one by one. That's how they.

(CROSSTALK)

SNODDY: The character of this judge is interesting. He's described as a blunt Ulsterman, and hopefully I'm one of those too, so I understand the view, but if he is indeed how he's described, then this could be serious problems for everybody involved, that it will be impossible to keep a lid on it, and we don't know where the evidence is going to come.

This man is going to be interrogating the prime minister in public. Who knows what might come out.

MACVICAR: I'm afraid we must leave it, but Andrew Neil, Gaby Hinsliff and Ray Snoddy, thank you very much.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, seeing is believing, maybe. As the international media show the gruesome pictures of Uday and Qusay Hussein's corpses, we ask should we be, when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MACVICAR: You're watching INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, here on CNN.

Seeing is believing, at least that is what the civilian leadership of the Pentagon say, arguing that as gruesome and graphic as they are, the pictures of Saddam Hussein's dead sons, Uday and Qusay, were a necessity for the Iraqi people.

The Bush administration, who was previously incensed when Arab and Western media, including CNN, showed pictures of dead and captures American soldiers, opted to publicize the photographs after an intense debate. They say this was a difficult decision to make.

The media too faced a moral quandary over whether to show the pictures.

Joining me now, Howard Kurtz, media critic for "The Washington Post," and here in the studio, Mohammad Chebaro, a correspondent with "Al Arabia," the 2-hour Arab television network.

Howard, let me begin with you. Obviously, these pictures are truly graphic. Is this an indication of the Bush administration's recognition that they have a credibility problem, at least with Iraqis?

HOWARD KURTZ, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, maybe in part, but I think -- I've been troubled by the way that CNN and other American networks have been running these pictures over and over again, almost turning them into video wallpaper, and there really isn't the debate that we saw when there was all that outrage, particularly on the part of Pentagon and other U.S. officials, when the footage was shown of the American POWs that had been captured by Saddam Hussein's regime.

And I just think that one of the reasons that the Bush administration puts this out, not just to convince Iraqis that yes these two brothers were dead, but also to extract the propaganda value of what was seen as the first big of good news for them in Iraq in a long time.

MACVICAR: Yes, the good news perhaps from the point of view of the Bush administration, but how do you think, Mohammad, this is playing out? We had the still photographs. We then 24 hours later we get these even more gruesome, almost pornographic video images of the bodies of these two men in a mortuary, mortuary makeup. How is this playing in the Arab world?

MOHAMMED CHEBARO, "AL ARABIA": I wold say nobody is but happy that Saddam and his men maybe the net is closing in, but not in that way.

It added insult to injury, basically, by seeing the following day as well, opening the two bodies for filming and having to tidy the faces up and maybe put type of make-up, which is in Arab culture, in Muslim culture this is -- you don't touch the dead body. A dead body that was killed in battle or fallen on the battlefield or was assassinated, or whatever, bloody death, basically, is buried as is, with his blood. Call him a martyr or call him a traitor, call him anything. It's buried as is and not with coming and doping him and putting stuff like other culture would do.

Normally, a normal death is usually shifted immediately to the prayer and from the prayer to the ground.

I mean, they stage managed this. If they wanted to benefit and basically give the Iraqi people the real thing that these people, these horrible men, have disappeared, this is not the way to do it. Open for the media immediately after the battle. Leave them where they fell, and pass on in the media coverage, and that would have done the job.

MACVICAR: Howard, let me ask you. You say you're seeing these images a lot. You remember, of course, the outrage expressed by the Bush administration at a time when many of us, including CNN, broadcast those pictures of American POWs and dead American soldiers.

How do you think they can make the justification in this case? Outrage on one hand -- OK, we understand the Geneva Convention and that protection. But outrage on one hand, and now clearly deciding that this is something that they can use.

KURTZ: Well, let's face it. It appeared to be a case of selective outrage, and understandably, you know, for the families of the American POWs that were captured at that time, horrible to see them paraded before the television cameras, at that point Iraqi state television.

Now, of course, the justification that the White House is putting forward is, there's widespread skepticism in Iraq, that Uday and Qusay actually were killed. We have to prove it. Therefore, we have to put these pictures out.

But that doesn't explain why they have, you know, made such a concerted effort to have these pictures covered in the United States as well, where there's no skepticism about the fact that these two men are dead.

MACVICAR: There's also a question for us here. I think of the 200- plus newspapers that are on the museum's Web site, front pages every day. 23 of those newspapers, most of them British, it has to be said, a couple of them American, have chose to put those pictures on their front pages. Many of the other newspapers have carried them on the inside, and as we've all said, you know, we are running these video pictures frequently.

Is there an issue for us? Is there an issue for "Al Arabia," for other Arab television networks, in running these instead of thinking about both the contribution of the propaganda value here, but also about the sensibility of this?

CHEBARO: Well, of course, it's a dilemma. How would you be an honest and objective broadcaster if you don't also put the pictures that were making the headline news, that it was the news of the moment. Yet how do you use them, how do you put them. Do you frame them, do you show -- I mean, how, technically, you would use them, is difficult.

It's a dilemma, it was a dilemma. There were a huge number of questions and telephone calls before these pictures made it to air, basically, and I think with lots of apprehension, the other pictures, the videotape, made it to air, and I think there is still debate of how best to use these things.

But the ethical issue is.

(CROSSTALK)

MACVICAR: Go ahead -- Howard.

KURTZ: If I can just jump in -- American newspaper is traditionally very skittish about showing dead bodies, and I'm not surprised at all that most of the papers here chose to put them on the inside pages, because if you put it on the front page, you're sort of thrusting it in people's faces.

It's glaring out at the newsstands. Kids are seeing it.

"The Washington Post" had a strange compromise. They ran only one of the dead brothers on the inside page and said, "If you want to see the really gruesome site, you can go to our Web site."

I'm not sure that was a satisfactory compromise, but that's how it played out in this newsroom.

MACVICAR: And in terms of obviously the decision that's been made in other news, as Mohammed was saying, when it comes to these video pictures, especially when it comes to 24 hour broadcasters, where this is a big story. This is, you know, a question of the debate, the question of the decision to release, and now the question of this videotape. It does seem to be playing a little bit more frequently than one would think would really be necessary.

Do you think that's true -- Howard.

KURTZ: I hate to put it so bluntly, but you could have accomplished the same journalistic goal for showing his pictures for 5 seconds and then talking about he impact nd why it's done and what people in Iraq think and all of that.

The reason it's being shown so often is that, to put it in crass terms," it's considered a ratings grabber. It's something sensational. It's something that would make people not click off to another channel and I think all of the cable networks, and he broadcast networks as well, although they're not on as much, are succumbing to that temptation.

MACVICAR: Well, thank you both very much for joining me to talk about this -- Howard Kurtz, "The Washington Post," Mohammed Chebaro of "Al Arabia." Thank you both very much.

Before we go, an update on a story we've been following. Diplomatic tension continues to mount between Canada and Iran over the death of an Iranian-born Canadian journalist in custody in Tehran.

Zahra Kazemi died last month from a brain hemorrhage caused by a still unexplained blow to the head while under interrogation. She was arrested while taking photographs.

Iranian authorities have refused to return her body to her son in Montreal, and refused Canadian government demands for a fair and transparent inquiry.

This week, the Canadian ambassador to Iran was recalled to Ottawa and Canadian authorities warned the Iranian government should consider his recall a prelude to sanctions or other measures.

That's all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Tune in again next time for another look at how the world media are reporting the news.

I'm Sheila MacVicar. Thanks for joining us.

END

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