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Aired August 29, 2003 - 19:30:00   ET


BILL SCHNEIDER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Bill Schneider, in London. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we bring together leading journalists to exam media coverage around the world.
It was a historic moment. British Prime Minister Tony Blair stepped out into the glare of the media Thursday as he appeared before the Hutton Inquiry.

Lord Hutton is examining the events surrounding the death of senior British scientist Dr. David Kelly, who is at the center of a row between No. 10 Downing Street and the BBC.

Mr. Blair testified that if a report accusing his government of sexing up intelligence on Iraq were true, he would resign.

Meanwhile, the Hutton Inquiry has already claimed one political victim, Mr. Blair's communications director Alistair Campbell.

So, how would a story like this have played in the United States, if this had happened there? Would this be as big as the Lewinski affair, White Water or perhaps even Watergate?

Joining me here in the studio are Tony Maddox, CNN's senior vice president for Europe, Middle East and Africa, and Johann Hari, columnist with Britain's "Independent" newspaper.

Let me ask first, Johan, you've compared this event directly with Clinton's impeachment episode. Explain what you meant by that comparison.

JOHAN HARI, "INDEPENDENT": This isn't Watergate, as a lot of Blair's enemies want to talk it up. This is not a situation where the prime minister deliberately and knowingly lied and fell because of it.

It's much more like Lewinski in the sense that he did something that was kind of understandable. He was pretty sure there were weapons of mass destruction. He exaggerated the certainty in his own mind. The intelligence, I think, was probably saying to him that there was a 30 to 60 percent chance there where WMD in Iraq, and he acted as though that meant he could be certain, not least because he very strongly believed in the humanitarian arguments for intervening in Iraq, which have totally been vindicated. We now know that 50 percent of the Iraqi people, according to a recent You-Gov (ph) poll wanted the war to happen.

So because of all of that, he told a lie that we all kind of understand, and because of it he's not going to fall, but there's a general feeling that he did something bad. We can't quite trust him the same way. A You-Gov (ph) poll in Britain found only 22 percent of people think he's trustworthy now.

And so the parallel with Monica is, he's going to be limping from now on. He's never quite going to be the clean, you know, squeaky clean Teflon prime minister we've had before.

SCHNEIDER: He survives, but his credibility is damaged. Would you agree with that -- Tony.

TONY MADDOX, CNN: I think it is damaged. I think a crucial difference is he can get to fight another election. Clinton, throughout the Lewinski affair, never had to fight another election. I think Blair will go on to fight another election.

I also think it's interesting in U.K. polling as well that Mr. Blair is not nearly as popular as he was, and this is a man who enjoyed an unparalleled level of popularity for a very long period of time. I still think that he is respected as a strong leadership figure, and I still think that the opposition has real issues in the U.K. s well.

So whilst I think this issue has damaged him on the crucial issue, whether or not it will stop him winning another election, I think that's far from clear.

SCHNEIDER: Tony Blair survives but his spin doctor, Alistair Campbell, has fallen on his sword. Tony, why and why now?

MADDOX: Well, I think the why now is the fascinating part of this.

Alistair Campbell has made it clear for sometime that he'd had enough of doing that job. He's been very, very high profile in that role.

Traditionally in U.K. politics, the prime minister's spokesman would not normally brief journalists in public, as they would say in the United States. It's normally a shadowy figure, and often referred to as the prime minister's spokesman.

Alistair Campbell has taken a very proactive attitude towards that. He's always ringing up journalists, very swift to complain. He's become a very high profile figure in himself.

He himself has also expressed an unease with that and has said that he wants to step back from it and has said that he wants to step back from the high profile role that he's got. But that he should do it now, the day after Blair has given his testimony, while the Hutton Inquiry is still far from clear on reaching it's verdicts, is absolutely extraordinary, I think.

SCHNEIDER: You would thank that Mr. Campbell would find himself vindicated so far, at least, by the Hutton Inquiry. The findings have not yet been reported.

But, Johann, what do you think he's trying -- what statement is he trying to make by this resignation?

HARI: Well, I think it's probably to distract attention from all the documents that were released half an hour before he resigned.

But, in British terms, I mean, this is extraordinary. The parallel, I think, to Americans, would be if Condoleezza Rice and Karl Rove both went overnight. It's impossible to underestimate Campbell's influence on Blair.

I think it's easy to say that he's a radical break (UNINTELLIGIBLE) but an evolution towards Alistair Campbell. I mean, Margaret Thatcher had a spin doctor called Bernard Higham (ph), who was quite similar.

But I think what Americans have to understand when looking at Alistair Campbell is, it's very easy to underestimate why Blair needed Alistair Campbell. We have unbelievably belligerent press that hates Tony Blair, hates the idea of a Labor government. You've got to imagine if Rush Limbaugh ran half your newspapers, that's the closest you'd get to what we have in Britain.

So Blair needed a guy who was out there, fighting in his corner, very vigorously, and Alistair Campbell did it brilliantly, and a lot of the enemies of Blair hate Campbell because he was so good at his job.

SCHNEIDER: So what did he do wrong?

HARI: We went to war saying there were WMD. There aren't any WMD in Iraq. That's the basic problem. And, you know, unfortunately, the inquiry isn't into that. It's into the sad but ultimately irrelevant question of David Kelly's suicide, which isn't the problem most British people have when they look at this.

They're saying Blair looked us in the eye. He used all of his weapons of mass persuasion, and he -- what he told us wasn't true.

SCHNEIDER: Tony, do you think it was a mistake for Tony Blair, for the prime minister, to stake his entire case for the war on the fact that there were weapons of mass destruction? Was that the ultimate cause of this problem?

MADDOX: Well, I do think that tactically he faced a real dilemma, because there was widespread opposition to the war within the U.K., and he had a real job of work to convince people that this was a war that we should be fighting. There wasn't a shortage of opposition to Saddam Hussein. It's a question of whether or not we should have a war and we should be fighting along side the Americans on it.

Now, he clearly focused everything on the WMD, and you have to ask yourself what he thought he would achieve by that. Most people in this country, even those who supported a war, did not feel an ever-present threat from Iraq. They simply didn't feel that level of threat. So the extent to which by playing that up it would make people feel a sense of anxiety that the war needed fighting, was always going to be counterproductive.

The people who opposed the war opposed it from a quite principled point of view, and I don't think they're ever going to be persuaded by that dossier, whether it was doctored or not. It wouldn't have really made any difference.

The other people who thought that the war was worth fighting didn't need persuading by the dossier.

So, to an extent, the entire thing has been a bit of a sideshow, but unfortunately for Tony Blair, because he put so much on it, he's now sort of stuck with it.

SCHNEIDER: You mentioned, Johann, in your column, that when he spoke to the American Congress, Prime Minister Blair said, "Even if we don't find weapons of mass destruction, regime change was a worthwhile objective, because he was a brutal and ruthless dictator."

Why didn't he say that -- could he have said that politically before the war?

HARI: I think Blair totally saw this through the prism of Kosovo and the Kosovo war, which is, you know, hideous dictator, get rid of him. The refugees will go home. We'll try this hideous dictator. The world will be a better place.

I think, you know, that was his entire approach to Iraq. Unfortunately, international law doesn't allow for that. Kosovo was technically illegal until the Security Council retrospectively ratified it.

So I think in order to -- because there is this huge concern about international law in Britain, which is in many ways a noble thing, that the American public doesn't have in the same way. Blair thought it was possible to get a second resolution behind backing the action in Iraq. The only way to get the second resolution was to convince everyone that Saddam had broken the many resolutions he'd agreed to. So Blair tried that route.

In retrospect, it would have been much -- knowing now -- we now that he was never going to get the U.N. support anyway -- in retrospect, it would have been fantastic, you know, and I would have loved it if Blair had come out right at the beginning and said, "OK, the Americans are worried about weapons of mass destruction. We don't know if there are weapons of mass destruction or not. What we're worried about are the Iraqi people. The only way we can end Saddam's tyranny and end the sanctions which have killed half a million people because of the way Saddam has implemented them, is if we invade. Let the Americans worry about WMD. We'll worry about the Iraqi people. Everyone's a winner."

SCHNEIDER: Tony, this has had repercussions, it seems to me, or would have, for the BBC. The BBC hasn't been center so far, but the inquiry so far, the Hutton Commission, suggests that the BBC story was quite wrong, when they indicated on the news program that the dossier had been sexed up. Do you think the BBC has explaining to do? Will there be consequences for the BBC?

MADDOX: Yes, I think there will.

Obviously, we need to wait and see what the Hutton Inquiry ultimately reveals, and I think that the BBC has two specific issues, one of which is serious and one of which could potentially be very serious for them.

The first one, it's worth explaining to international viewers, that the BBC is not a state broadcaster, as it's often referred to. It's actually funded by a charter which the government reauthorizes, but it's actually an independent public service broadcaster. So it is semi-detached directly from government.

It is governed by a board of governors, and the board of governors have a dual role. They have the role of being the champions of the BBC and also they have the role of being the watchdog for the BBC, and that secondary role, as hawk, has very recently been very contentious in the U.K., because independent broadcasters go before, what was it, the Independent Broadcast Authority, Independent Television Commission, an independent body which they feel is a much more rigorous set of tests than the BBC has to be subjected to.

Now, in this story as to whether or not the Kelly story was true and the row with the "Today Show," the board of governors were persuaded to come out behind the BBC and the BBC story, and I think the Hutton Inquiry has asked some searching questions about whether or not that was the right thing to do, given what we now know about the discussions that were taking place inside the BBC editorially about this story.

And I think the real anxiety, the primary anxiety for the BBC is if Hutton rules that the dual rule of the governors has been shown to be wanting here, and the BBC is seeking the renewal of it's charter in 2005, then there will be real questions of the futures of the governors of the BBC. That's a profound issue for the BBC.

SCHNEIDER: Let me get in one quick question I'll ask each of you to respond to. The prime minister approached the director of the BBC and asked if he would make a deal, where they would retract at least part of their story. Should the BBC have accepted some sort of deal -- Tony.

MADDOX: Well, I think it was the chairman of the governors of the BBC who got the direct call from the prime minister, and I think, you know, that's a very difficult situation for someone to find themselves in, and I think it's admirable editorially that someone should find themselves able to resist that kind of pressure.

Now, Gavin Davis (ph) knows better than you and I do quite what they thought of the story and quite whether or not, you know, it was really something worth going all the way to the mat to fight. That's a decision for him.

I do think it was an extraordinary set of circumstances.

SCHNEIDER: And Johann.

HARI: If he had agreed, he would have been savaged as a Blair crony.

I mean, you've got to understand, the root of this whole battle is that Rupert Murdoch despises the BBC and desperately wants to vandalize it like he's vandalized so many other British institutions and, you know, that's the root -- one bad journalist in the BBC doesn't mean the BBC is a corrupt and terrible institution.

SCHNEIDER: Thanks very much. We've been speaking to Johann Hari, a columnist for the "Independent," and Tony Maddox, here, the CNN vice president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, how can one movie cause so much controversy, and it hasn't even been released yet. We'll look at Mel Gibson's new film, "The Passion," when we come back.



One of Hollywood's leading men is trying to find a new following for his upcoming movie, "The Passion." It recounts the final hours of Christ. It's becoming the most hotly debated film in years, and it hasn't even been released yet.

The film is being labeled anti-Semitic by many Jewish and Christian groups.

To discuss this, I'm joined now, in Washington, by Deal Hudson, editor of "Crisis" magazine, and in New York, Laurie Goodstein, correspondent with "The New York Times" and "The International Herald Tribune."

Now, let me start with Deal. Deal, you've seen this film. Tell me.

DEAL HUDSON, "CRISIS": Yes, sir, I have.

SCHNEIDER: Yes. Tell me, in your view, is it anti-Semitic.

HUDSON: Not in the least.

I really think that the Jewish criticisms of the film really are aimed at the gospel accounts themselves rather than the film, because the film is very true to the four gospel accounts depicting that some Jews, a certain group of Jews in Jerusalem at that time, participated in the crucifixion of Christ.

The film in no way indicts all of them as a group. There are many Jews in the film who did not celebrate, who are grieved by this death.

And as I've said in print, I mean, once you see what the Roman soldiers do to Jesus during the last 12 hours of his life, your thought and awareness of what the Jews did just passes by.

SCHNEIDER: Now, Laurie Goodstein, you've reported on this film. A great deal of controversy over it among a lot of people who haven't seen it yet.


SCHNEIDER: Why do you think there is this controversy? And is it fair that they're objecting to something that they have not seen?

GOODSTEIN: The controversy started because a group of scholars, and I'll note that many of them were Catholic scholars, some of them were Jewish scholars who have worked together for years in the area of interfaith relations, and they have long had concerns about how passion plays are presented, depicting the last hours of the life of Christ. And so this was on their radar screen.

In part, it was on their radar screen because of a piece in "The New York Times" magazine. It was not written by me. It was a profile of Mel Gibson, but it included some comments from his father, who is someone who denies the number of Jews who were killed in the Holocaust.

Now, both Mel Gibson and his father are part of a movement within Catholicism that is traditionalist. That means that in part they reject the teachings of Vatican II. Vatican II is, in 1965, pronounced that the deicide charge, that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus, should be laid to rest.

I'm giving you this background so you can see that the concern was on the part of Catholic and Jewish scholars who said, well, if a fellow who follows this kind of teaching is making a movie about the death of Christ, we ought to be concerned.

SCHNEIDER: And therefore they've reached the conclusion that the movie is probably anti-Semitic? Is that fair?

GOODSTEIN: Well, they -- what happened was, they got a hold of a script. Now, it's a script that they apparently, the Gibson company did not want them to have. It was at the time a script that they were using to do some filming from, back in October. And this was all they had.

They used that script to make some judgments which Mel Gibson and his production company have said is absolutely unfair, because apparently the working product now, the edited film, is not at all like that script that they saw.

But they did indeed see a scrip that the company had been working from and, based on that, they were very, very concerned.

However, since Deal Hudson and many others have seen the film, it's drawn rave reviews. I mean, people are very moved by the film, and there are some Jewish viewers who have seen the film as well who say that they have no concerns that it's anti-Semitic. There are a few other Jewish viewers who have raised some concerns about the film the state that it's in now.

SCHNEIDER: Mr. Hudson, you've seen the film, as we've said. What new does this film have to say about "The Passion" that has not been said or scene in previous depictions?

HUDSON: I think what is new in the film is the graphic, almost violent -- well, yes, violent depiction of the scourging of Christ. I mean, Christians of all denominations talk about Jesus suffered and died for our sins, and we've seen some pretty graphic crucifixions in other films, but the scourging and the utter joy that the Roman soldiers took in the scourging, almost sadistic pleasure, going way beyond what Pontius Pilot asked them to do, that's new, and when you see that, and you also see, you know, the walk to Golgotha, carrying the cross, and then Simon coming along and helping him carry his burden, this is very, very detailed depiction of those events during those last 12 hours of his life.

Very powerful. It leaves the audience just gasping for breath, kind of in stunned silence, and I don't think anyone who sees this film will ever approach the celebration of Easter with the same almost disregard for that aspect of his passion.

SCHNEIDER: Ms. Goodstein, do you believe that Mel Gibson as a filmmaker is being put on trial here for his own personal religious views?

GOODSTEIN: I don't know that it's gotten that personal. I think people who have seen it are judging based on the product, and I think even those who are critics of his say that they do not believe that Mel Gibson himself is anti-Semitic. He works with Jewish people. He has a history of working well in Hollywood, of not having any kind of troubled relations with people of other religions.

I think the question that people who have not seen the film, and those who have, are -- some of them are still asking, is, why make this film in this way now?

SCHNEIDER: Deal Hudson, of "Crisis" magazine, Laurie Goodstein, of "The New York Times," thank you very much for being our international correspondents.

That's our show for now. But on the next edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, a ban on all Indian programming in Pakistan. So what does conflict on the airwaves signal for peace on the ground? We'll discuss that and much more.

I'm Bill Schneider. Thanks for joining us.



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