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Aired August 1, 2003 - 19:30:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Fionnuala Sweeney, in London. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we bring together leading journalists to examine media coverage around the world.
The Bush administration says it will not declassify information related to alleged Saudi involvement in the attacks of September 11.

U.S. President George W. Bush met the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal on Tuesday to discuss the controversial section of the congressional report. The Saudis have angrily dismissed such allegations, and have been keen to show their commitment to fight terror. Observers say this forms part of the Saudi effort to become more transparent.

The kingdom is based on the fundamentalist Wahhabi brand of Islam, but now it's coming under pressure for reform, both from inside and outside the country.

Many in the press are also testing the boundaries to see how far they can go. But just this week an outspoken journalist was banned from writing in the latest battle between religious hardliners and liberals.

Joining me now from Beirut, Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi journalist and political commentator, as well as former editor of "Alwatan" newspaper.

This apparent transparency by the Saudi authorities that's being discussed, do you see this as an attempt to genuinely be more open?

JAMAL KHASHOGGI, JOURNALIST: No, it's not an attempt. It's a continuation of Saudi efforts to finalize this issue with the American government.

Ever since allegations start coming out after 9-11, Saudi Arabia has been open to American, to work with them, to invite them into the country, work closely in the fight, both countries' fight, against terrorism, and again Saudi Arabia proved its sincerity when it asked clearly that let the world see those 28 pages, and this view shared by American congressmen who want those pages to come out and be discussed.

It is obvious Saudi Arabia is very much confident of its position, confident of those wrong accusations, and wants them to have them discussed and settled once and for all.

SWEENEY: All right. So do you see this then as a continuation of the kind of reform that's being talked about within Saudi society as well? Is there a link?

KHASHOGGI: It is. Yes. I would see it as a quiet (UNINTELLIGIBLE). I can see in Saudi Arabia, led by Prince Abdullah, which is almost touching different corners of our daily life, our legal system, educational system. It is quiet. It is gradual, because the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) regionally is conservative. It doesn't do things correctly, even though I think the time is rushing us to move a little bit faster than our habit of doing things, surely and slowly.

But perestroika is taking place. It is very interesting time for me, as a Saudi Arabian, to watch and to be honored that I'm at this time witnessing these important events taking place in my country.

SWEENEY: But do you think that that reform, that openness, is going to extend to the media? And I say that bearing in mind how another outspoken journalist, like yourself, Hussein Jaboski (ph), as we mentioned in the introduction, has got into trouble with the Saudi authorities this week.

KHASHOGGI: It already has reached the media. The media in Saudi Arabia is way more open than it was before.

There are certain issues which are difficult to discuss yet, especially religious issues, but gradually even those issues will be acceptable, particularly after the wide acceptance by the leadership and a group of intellectuals who met in Riyadh six weeks ago, and they agreed on the concept of intellectual diversity in our society.

So when we do that, that means everybody should be allowed to speak freely and follow his own belief.

SWEENEY: And in the meantime, though, it is often said that journalists in Saudi Arabia have to know how to play the game.

Now, how do the rules of the game change in a society that's emerging, as you say, that's developing towards a more open society?

KHASHOGGI: Time will change the rule of the game. It is the progress we are witnessing. Sometime trial and error, and hopefully we have more success stories than errors.

We are moving in the right direction. I say that as someone who came out from the media and as an ordinary Saudi. I'm very optimistic for the future of my country.

SWEENEY: Let me ask you, did the attacks, the bomb attacks in May of this year, effect the pace of reform at all?

KHASHOGGI: It expedites the pace of reform. It made us aware that time cannot wait for us until we are ready and fit to do reform.

Even in Germany, they are talking about reform, so we are no longer ashamed or afraid of this word. This word has been used in the king's statement more than 20 times, the speech he made to the Consultative Council (ph) two or three months ago. It is common vocabulary used by Prince Abdullah.

So, yes, it did expedite reform. We don't have much more time to waste and it's time for Saudi Arabia to be truly part of the moral and free world.

SWEENEY: Nonetheless, though, there is still a serious battle between the hardliners, the religious hardliners, and the reformists in your country. I mean, that's going to continue for sometime.

KHASHOGGI: It will continue until we accept what we agreed on six weeks ago. Diversity of religious and intellectuals and different school of thoughts, if we do that, if we say that, that they won't face the truth, then there will not be these differences.

When a group of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) or religious community believes that they own truth, then we will constantly have this problem.

SWEENEY: All right. There we must leave it. Jamal Khashoggi, in Beirut, thank you very much indeed for joining us.

KHASHOGGI: Thank you for inviting me.

SWEENEY: And up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, split down the middle. The media debates whether criminals should be paid for their stories.

That, when we come back.


SWEENEY: His story has split the British media, and it's not just the moral dilemma over whether Tony Martin, a British farmer, should have shot and killed an intruder, it's the payment he received for his story after getting out of prison this past week.

The British farmer received more than $150,000 for his story from the "Daily Mirror."

Many, like the "Mirror," argue that printing his story serves the public interest. But critics say that payments to criminals will serve to undermine the code and ethics of journalism.

Well, joining me now here in the studio, Kim Fletcher, a media columnist for the "Daily Telegraph," and Mark Stephens, media lawyer.

First of all, Kim, it really is all about what defines the public interest.

KIM FLETCHER, "DAILY TELEGRAPH": Yes, and the public interest is extremely difficult to define.

What we've seen this week is just how difficult it is, because we've had people on one side saying, "Of course it's in the public interest. What could be more in the public interest than this story about a farmer."

A lot of people say, "Of course it's not in the public interest. He's nothing to say that's actually interesting, and there's nothing that takes on the whole story about crime very far."

So when you see that sort of split from observers, you see immediately how difficult it is to define the public interest.

SWEENEY: You are more or less saying that it's a no-win situation.

FLETCHER: Well, I think it's a no-win situation for the Press Complaints Commission, who try to regulate newspapers in Britain.

I think for newspapers, it's a complete win situation, because they can do stuff like this, and we say, oh, it's in the public interest. That's why we're doing this.

So, actually, the public interest is quite a weasely (ph) thing. It's almost a get-out clause for newspapers.

SWEENEY: Mark, what do you think defines the public interest? And should the press define what they believe is in the public interest?

MARK STEPHENS, MEDIA LAWYER: Well, I think what we have here is weasel words. It's quite clear that the Tony Martin story and the money that was paid by a British newspaper was not in the public interest.

Public interest is not to allow people to profit from their crimes. That is the overriding public interest. That is why the Press Complaints Commission says we should not have payments made to criminals to benefit from their crimes.

Now, there are occasions when there is a competing public interest. For example, you're going to prevent a crime or you're going to be able to expose some information about perhaps a drug which has serious side effects.

In those circumstances, the greater public interest, if you like, competes and says, "Well, if we have to, we'll pay the criminal for the information."

So, in those circumstances, there is a greater public interest, but the public interest, from beginning to end, is you do not allow criminals to profit from their crime.

SWEENEY: But some newspapers profit also if they deem it to be in the public interest. There's going to be a lot of newspapers being bought, right?

STEPHENS: Well, news organizations convey information. They have shareholders. And so of course, they sell news. And that is how we receive information in a democratic society. There's nothing wrong with that.

What we do think is wrong, though, is that newspapers and news organizations should not be paying criminals to profit from their crime. It's as simple as that. And in many European countries, in contrary to criminal law to do so.

SWEENEY: Kim, you think that the Press Complaints Commission here in this country will be the losers here. Why is that? And where does it leave the Press Complaints Commission?

FLETCHER: Well, I think it's very difficult for the commission, because there are some cases that they examine which are absolutely clearcut. There are cases of invasion of privacy or whatever, there are photographs of children, and they can be quite clear where they stand.

But they lose out in a story like this, because already a lot of people, not just journalists, are coming forward, saying, "No. We think this is in the public interest. We want to know why Mr. Martin was left in that farmhouse, why he felt he had to use a shotgun. We want to know all these things."

Now, I can quite see why Mark will say that's not quite in the public interest. But many people would argue it's his. Therefore, the pres complaints commission are going to be left making a decision and having a lot of people outside that decision saying, "No, that's a wrong decision. There's never been a clearer example of the public interest than this," the more it was justified.

And that starts to bring the PCC into disrepute, because people disagree with the decisions it makes.

SWEENEY: Do you agree with that assessment?

STEPHENS: I think there is something to that. I mean, the Press Complaints Commission is supposedly the watchdog of the British press. In fact, most of us think it's pretty much a lapdog. It has no sharp and jagged teeth with which to sink into the media. It can't fine. It can't do anything that a normal regulator can.

But I think there is a problem for it, because on the one hand, the people that pay for it and run it, namely the media, want it to say everything is in the public interest, but I think that there is a wider public out there who recognize that it really isn't in the public interest to allow people to go around paying off criminals.

People who come out of jail shouldn't be able to profit from their crimes.

SWEENEY: But in a sense, Piers Morgan of the "Daily Mirror" is really pushing the boundaries all the time here, yes?

STEPHENS: Oh, yes. I mean, of course he's trying to push the boundaries. I mean, he wouldn't be a good editor if he didn't.

SWEENEY: But if he didn't push the boundaries, who would?

STEPHENS: Well, I think that's the point. In a sense their job is to push the boundaries. What their job is not to do, though, is to cross that line. And what Piers Morgan has done, who is the editor of the "Mirror," is patently cross the line.

There is absolutely no public interest in paying Tony Martin, a man who accepted that he shouldn't have killed under no circumstances and has paid a sentence for it, he should not be profiting from that.

SWEENEY: What do you think about that last point.


FLETCHER: The interesting thing about Tony Martin, of course, is that he is a very particular case. Partly because of the press coverage.

A lot of people do not regard Tony Martin as a criminal. He quite clearly is a criminal. He was originally sentenced to murder. It became manslaughter on appeal.

So, yes, he is a criminal. But because of the peculiar circumstances of that crime, there are many people, and I suspect many newspaper readers, who do not regard him as a criminal, and therefore they do not see that he is profiting from crime.

SWEENEY: What's the difference between him and someone like Jeffrey Archer (ph)?

FLETCHER: Well, the difference with Jeffrey Archer (ph) is that Jeffrey Archer (ph) has come out and rather than the newspapers are paying Jeffrey Archer (ph), they're paying charities.

Now, there's a very good argument that therefore Jeffrey Archer (ph) benefits ultimately, because the charities have benefited through Jeffrey Archer's (ph) work. But, again, in the sneaky way that British newspapers have, we say that's fine. No money is going to Jeffrey Archer (ph), it's going to charity. It's sneaky.

STEPHENS: It is sneaky, and I think one of the problems with Tony Martin is, equally bad, it was said that he was paid so he could pay his lawyers.

Now, I have to say, there's some sources of money that even lawyers shouldn't take money from, and profiting from your crime is just one of them. The same with charity.

SWEENEY: So you don't think that charity is the answer here in this case either?

STEPHENS: Absolutely not. I mean, this is a man who is an admitted criminal, and in those circumstances, he shouldn't be out there.

Whatever we think of the moral rights and wrongs of his story, he is a criminal and he should not.

SWEENEY: At the end of the day, Kim, you suggest in an article that you wrote recently that really circulation is perhaps is the underlying theme.

FLETCHER: Of course it's circulation, and that's why I think it's very difficult to do anything about it. I think market forces in the end work, and if the "Mirror" had done something very wicked, then I think people would be more angry than they are.

I think actually this will blow over. I think it's grubby, but I think a lot of newspapers are grubby.

STEPHENS: And there is enormous commercial pressures on newspapers in this country. There are too many newspapers in the marketplace compared to other places in the world, and I think as a consequence of that, it leads to newspaper editors taking things just that little bit too far and the Tony Martin case, the "Daily Mirror" and Piers Morgan, is just the latest example.

SWEENEY: There we have to leave it. Mark Stephens, Kim Fletcher, thank you both very much.

On a lighter note now, let's review this week's political cartoons with A.A. Gill, media critic and columnist for the "Sunday Times."

First of all, welcome. And we go through these cartoons. And some of them are quite funny, and not so funny this week.

This is the first one. What have you made of this? "Ground Hog Day" it says at the bottom.

A.A. GILL, MEDIA CRITIC: Yes, this is repeated, it's the same bad news from Iraq everyday.

Actually, this isn't so much a cartoon about Bush and the White House as the problems the cartoonists now have, is that everyday it's the same story.

I mean, this is the one cartoon you have in that case that's marked "In Emergency, Please Break." I mean, you can only do this cartoon once. Where do you go from here? I think this really is sort of desperately hoping there's going to be some more news tomorrow.

SWEENEY: All right, so that if Saddam or somebody is caught we can move on.

Now, let's move on to this cartoon. This, of course, is "Doonesbury," and getting quite serious these days, his opinion about what's going on in Iraq.

GILL: I really love "Doonesbury's" character. I think this is now as good as it's ever been.

All the way through the war, this is the one that -- it's shocking to say about a cartoonist -- but it was the one consistent opposition to the war in American papers and around the world, of course, because "Doonesbury" now goes all around the world.

But I think this is incredibly good. And as you rightly say, it isn't funny anymore. It's really quite realistic, about what soldiers must be feeling like, being left out in Iraq.

SWEENEY: Very briefly, let's go on to the next one. Ariel Sharon was in Washington, D.C. with George W. Bush. They gave a news conference afterwards, of course talking about the Middle East roadmap to peace, and having his arm twisted, or not, as the case may be.

GILL: I think this is brilliant. This is my favorite cartoon of the week. This is so exactly what it's like, this sham of America pretending to lean on Israel and Israel pretending to be lent on. I think it says it all.

SWEENEY: By mutual agreement, do you think?

GILL: Yes.

SWEENEY: All right. Let's move on.

Oh, yes. Tony Blair sitting at home, watching his favorite TV channel.

GILL: Well, his not favorite TV channel. But I expect this is quite close to the truth of the Blair household at the moment. I think that they must be really pretty fed up with the media, and their spin on his spin.

I can't imagine that he's now gone off to Barbados on holiday and I expect he's very pleased not to have to take the television with him.

SWEENEY: Exactly.

Moving on, George W. Bush recently went to Africa. Of course, just before he went, we remember Liberia and his announcement that he would send a reconnaissance mission there to see what was happening, taking place.

So, Bush, the fireman, goes into Africa, ready, with money that he's pledged, millions of dollars, gets there and finds there's not a lot of water even left in his fireman's hose. And he says "How about a drink of water"?

GILL: This is the most iniquitous story. This is a good cartoon as it tells it exactly as it is.

I mean, just after having come back from a trip to Africa, which was hailed as being, you know, this great new start between America and Africa, there is -- Liberia, which is the one country that America has very strong links to, through slavery, and they really backed away from doing anything.

And now there's horse-trading with Nigeria about who's going to pay for intervention whilst people are being piled up outside the American embassy, bodies are being piled up outside the American embassy.

I mean, it's a really shaming piece of foreign news for the states, and I bet that, you know, hardly anyone is noticing.

SWEENEY: Yes, well, going back to sort of domestic news in the states here, Jenna Bush, daughter of George W., hands her father her report card -- of course the schools have just got out for summer -- and says, "I've blacked out portions for national security reasons."

GILL: Yes, I'm pleased you've told me who these people were, because it's not immediately recognizable. This looks like a woman with a bun, but obviously it's Bush, with his ears.

This is quite funny, because it's obviously a reference to the Senate report and the bits of that that have been blacked out that the Saudis particularly want to see, implying that they were involved with al Qaeda.

SWEENEY: But the implication here is that she's blocked out the parts she doesn't want him to see.

GILL: Yes.

SWEENEY: And this is what the Americans don't want, the Saudis or they don't want the American public to see.

GILL: Well, I wonder if there's anything in there at all. I mean, don't you think they might have been just some doodling in the margins?

SWEENEY: Well, we have a lot to write.


GILL: I don't know. You know, the awful thing is, in the end, I'd just assume, we all assume, that we're only told 1/10 of everything anyway. I don't believe anything.

SWEENEY: Oh, dear. A.A. Gill, well, thank you very much indeed. I hope you believe that here.

Now an update to a story we've been following.

It has been dark days for the Gray Lady, but "The New York Times" hopes that all that will change now that it's appointed its first ever ombudsman. It's also named a new pair of managing editors.

The news comes the same week the newspaper released a 94-page report critical of its newsroom culture and its handling of the Jayson Blair scandal.

Blair resigned on May 1 after filing dozens of plagiarized, inaccurate and fictitious articles published in "The Times."

And 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 Fionnuala Sweeney. Thanks for joining us.



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