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Popularity of Two World Leaders Spiraling

Aired October 3, 2003 - 19:30:00   ET


JOHN SNOW, CNN ANCHOR: I'm John Snow, in London. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we bring together leading journalists to examine media coverage around the world.
Some pollsters say that the popularity of these two world leaders is spiraling.

According to a CBS and "New York Times" poll, only 51 percent of the American population are satisfied with the way U.S. President George W. Bush is doing his job. And here in Britain, results from a MORI poll from the "Financial Times" found only 29 percent of the British public are satisfied with Prime Minster Tony Blair.

For both leaders, this is the highest disapproval rating since they took office.

But is it a mistake for the media to read too much into these polls? And are they, as one journalist put it, just political beauty contests?

I'm joined now by Bob Worcester, chairman of MORI polls, and Christopher Dickey, "Newsweek's" Middle East regional editor.

Chris Dickey I mean, let's be candid. How much weight do we apply, particularly to polls that aren't actually anywhere near an election anyway?

CHRISTOPHER DICKEY, "NEWSWEEK": Well, I don't think you should put too much weight on them.

I think it is a beauty contest. That's a line from one of my stories, as a matter of fact. And when you're talking about approval ratings for different candidates, whose in advance, whose a little bit behind, in any given race that's more than a year away, you're just basically watching horses warming up in the paddocks. They aren't on the track yet.

SNOW: But you're addicted, Bob Worcester. Nothing will stop you polling any time of any year. What's the point of doing it right now?

BOB WORCESTER, MORI POLLS: The point of it is not the horse race, and I'm grateful to Chris for introducing that, because so many journalists only look at whether or not it's a horse race, and polls are so much more useful if you look past the headline figures, which very few journalists and editors do, to look at the issues, to look at the perceptions that people have, in order to judge, to improve the judgments that journalists make when they report political news.

SNOW: But you are actually very often guilty, surely, of trying to seduce the journalists with a headline figure that gets us all excited.

WORCESTER: No. I have to say I'm not, John. You should know me better than that after 25 years. And what I'm interested in is to do the most systematic and objective job that we can of assessing, in my case, British public opinion on all sorts of topics, and the headline figure is a very small part of it.

SNOW: It can be handy in re-jigging a story. It can in fact put new flesh on old bones, to have a poll.

DICKEY: Yes, but a lot of times when it does, people are spinning the numbers in a poll or a particular question in a poll and losing site of everything else.

I mean, there's a very strange poll that just came out in Baghdad, in Iraq, the first scientific poll. Actually, it was the first one since the one the week before by another company.

And what it said was Jacques Chirac was the most popular leader in Iraq. But it also that 60-some percent of the people in Iraq, or at least in Baghdad, were happy that the war had taken place and that Saddam was gone.

So what does it mean? You don't really know. You don't begin to know, unless you begin to study the questions and study the sequence in the poll, and most wire service reports, most television bulletins, just give you a number and a headline and, goodbye.

SNOW: Given what I said in the beginning, are we therefore to dismiss what the polls tell us about the popularity of Tony Blair and George W. Bush?

WORCESTER: Certainly not. And it does focus the mind of Tony Blair and George W. Bush, whether or not they say they believe opinion poll or read opinion poll.

We who do private polling for such leaders as George Bush and Tony Blair do know that they pay very close attention to them, and they have aides who are working fulltime doing nothing but pouring over the poll data to see what nuances -- they really study the polls, unlike so many journalists.

We're on with Chris, and I have to take issue with a "Newsweek" poll published in his magazine last week, at least in the U.S. edition. I'm not sure if it's in the international edition or not, that had the most disgraceful kind of analysis based on 377 Democrats, or leaning Democrats, leaning Democrats, 377 people in the United States of America, and on the basis of that said that Wesley Clark was leading the field.

Wesley Clark had 14 percent. Joe Lieberman had 12 percent. John Kerry 10 percent and "other" 8 percent. The fact is, there was no statistically significant difference between any of the five candidates that they measured, and yet they built a whole fabric, a whole story, based on that, to the derision of the polling fraternity around the world.

SNOW: Well, in fairness, I mean, Wes clark was the new horse on the track and therefore to have him rating anywhere presumably was.


DICKEY: Bob also hasn't looked -- if you're going to go after "Newsweek," look, you haven't looked at the original poll yourself. You got that in an e-mail from somebody in the United States.

It didn't appear in the magazine. It appeared in a Web story.

WORCESTER: No, no. It appeared in the magazine.

DICKEY: You don't know -- some of the items on it appeared in the magazine.

WORCESTER: It was covered by 180 newspapers plus and virtually every broadcast and media outlet in the United States -- "The Washington Post" for times. Now that is a misleading situation.

SNOW: So we're now saying that Wes Clark, for example, who was widely reported, without the polling data adding a splash to his entry into the race, didn't.

WORCESTER: I think he did. He did well. But what he didn't do was lead the field. What he didn't do was to outdistance his competitors. They were all clustered together at about -- if you took 11 percent plus or minus 3, all five of the people they measured were within statistical limits.

SNOW: But truth to tell, at the end of the day, the poll is very often commissioned by a paper anyway. I mean, it's a very close if not incestuous relationship between the media and the pollsters.

DICKEY: Sure. We commission polls because we want to look at the trends, and a lot of media commission polls because they want to get the headlines. It's an easy story. You pay somebody, they go out and do the work. You look at the number that calls attention to itself, and you make it a headline.

I think that readers have to be more responsible. Also journalists. I agree. I think journalists have to be more responsible in the way they report it.

WORCESTER: And editors.

DICKEY: But if you look at any story on a poll, the fact is they're damn hard to read. It's all this number and that number.

If it were up to me, I'd just publish the poll questions, the graphs and the results and let readers come to their own conclusions.


SNOW: It's rather interesting actually that the pollsters were responsible for the withdraw of Ms. Huffington, Arianna as we like to call her, from the California, and others. I mean, basically, it was only down to the polls. It was the polls that said Arnie was going to cleanup. They may not be right.

WORCESTER: It wasn't that they said Arnie was going to cleanup so much as that she wasn't going anywhere, and that, I think, was what caused her to withdraw. But, also, was she really in it anyway for anything but the publicity? That's a question.

SNOW: Indeed, but at the same time, there is another roll in which the polls are playing a part.

DICKEY: I think politicians ignore polls at their peril, not just because they study them, where Bob is talking about, the classic case that comes to my mind -- I live in France. In 1997, the Chirac government and his prime minister had approval ratings of about 30 percent. Nonetheless, they dissolved the government, went to elections, thinking that they'd lose a few seats in parliament, which they dominated. In fact, they lost complete control of parliament.

In fact, at the end of the day, they got about 30 percent of the vote. If they had looked at their own polls, they would have been a hell of a lot better off than they were at the end of the day.

SNOW: And I'm sure we would find that Winston Churchill in 1945 was the most popular politician in Britain, but he went on to lose the election by a massive margin.

WORCESTER: As two Gallup polls forecast that he would, published in the "News Chronicle," and one the week before the election. Winston Churchill was never shown that poll, apparently, and it was his doctor a year-and-a-half later who brought it to his attention, and a cloud, the book says, was cast over the great man's face, and he changed the subject.

SNOW: Well, it's clear you are determined to end this discussion with the pollsters flying high, unblemished. But it's clear, isn't it, at the end of the day, we can't do without each other. You need us to publish your findings. We need you to give us a kick.

Chris Dickey, Bob Worcester, thank you both very much.

Up next on the program, how to build a story without really telling it. We look at the legal minefields facing the media when we come back.



A Russian cinema in Moscow has dropped a scheduled series of films concerning the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Officials have branded the films as anti-Russian. They are part of a festival which has packed in audiences in London, Paris and Tokyo.

The move came ahead of the Kremlin-sponsored poll to elect a new leader in Chechnya.

CNN's Moscow Bureau Chief Jill Dougherty has the story.


JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN MOSCOW BUREAU CHIEF (voice-over): In a darkened hall at a museum, Russians watch in tortured silence.

A documentary film with uncut video from last year's hostage crisis in a Moscow theatre. 18 films in all, part of an international festival on the War in Chechnya.

(on camera): They were supposed to be shown at this commercial theatre here in Moscow, but at the last minute the theatre manager sent a letter to the festival organizers informing them the films were unacceptable. He was later quoted as saying they were anti-Russian.

"We have good relations with top level government agencies," he said. "Why should we spoil that."

(voice-over): The theatre manager denies there was any government pressure on him. His theatre, he says, simply does not show political films.

But the festival organizer, a human rights activist who heads up the Andrei Sakharov Museum, thinks it's likely pressure did come from Russia's Federal Security Service, the FSB, which is critically depicted in several films.

YURY SAMODUROV (ph), ANDREI SAKHAROV MUSEUM (through translator): I was thinking, "My God. Someone from the FSB could come in here and take the film and say this is anti-government activity." And I don't even know what the consequences would be.

DOUGHERTY: One French film in particular, "Assassination in Moscow," alleges the FSB carried out a series of apartment bombings in Russia in 1999, not Chechen rebels, as the government claims.

The documentary is championed by an avowed political enemy of Russian President Vladimir Putin, exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky.

BORIS BEREZOVSKY, EXILED RUSSIAN OLIGARCH: If it was democracy, they are able to present their film and they would be allowed to. And the next question is why were they not allowed to do that. And the answer is also clear. Because officials are afraid of that.

DOUGHERTY: The films raise strong emotions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): May they be damned, all of them, from the president on down. You can't watch these films without crying. We're turning into savages.

DOUGHERTY: Several filmgoers told us they don't have enough information about what is really happening in Chechnya.

LUDMILLA MAKSTUTINA, GOVT. EMPLOYEE (RET.) (through translator): I wanted to clarify it for myself. On the one hand, what our media say and on the other what the foreign media say, but I haven't made up my mind yet.

DOUGHERTY: Russian television rarely reports on fighting in Chechnya these days, preferring stories about reconstruction of the war-ravaged republic.

The main rebel leader, former Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, is in hiding. He communicates through e-mails and a Web site that's regularly shutdown by the Russian government.

So people come to the film festival looking for answers in a war that only seems to pose more questions.

For INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, I'm Jill Dougherty, in Moscow.


SNOW: Now it is a story that is proving next to impossible to tell. It all surrounds allegations of a rape involving British football stars. The story is a legal minefield, but that hasn't stopped it from leading the tabloid newspapers throughout the week.

Now we can't and won't go into the allegations here, but the legal issues it has brought to the fore have taxed journalists and lawyers not least with implications for the Internet.

I'm joined now here in the studio by Nick Wrenn, editor of CNN.COM International and Paul Gilbert, media lawyer at Finers, Stevens, Innocent.

Now, Nick, let's just look at it. Is CNN -- I mean, you're an international organization. Do you feel banned by U.K. law or by some other international concept?

NICK WRENN, INTERNATIONAL EDITOR, CNN.COM: The feeling has always been that if we are within the media guidelines for U.K. law, we are safe, because U.K. law in terms of contempt of court, i.e. not prejudicing court cases or libel, tends to be as strict as any law we've come across. Certainly a whole lot stricter than law in the United States.

So if we write our stories to go within those guidelines, bearing in mind that the international operation is based here in London, that's what we work to, yes.

SNOW: So on this story, for example, you feel as bound by the U.K. libel laws as I do?

WRENN: Certainly, yes, yes, yes. And that's always worth bearing in mind, because the Internet is especially tricky, because the nature of the media is that it's global, accessed at any time by people around the world, and it's where you draw the line.

The problem with the Internet is that there are very few test cases that we can go on, the legal frameworks were done long before -- often before computers were invented, let alone the Internet.

SNOW: Paul, you clearly are going to be interested if anybody gets onto the Internet and starts naming anybody that might have retained you to represent their interests.

PAUL GILBERT, FINERS, STEVENS, INNOCENT ASSOC.: Yes, that's right. It's quite interesting, the point that's made about there being very little law on this particular area. That is potentially libeling somebody in another jurisdiction, and how does an Internet provider deal with that.

There is in fact a case going on in Australia at the moment where an Australian businessman is suing Dow Jones in respect to three hits on an Internet site in Australia in respect to an implication relating to America.

So it's interesting to hear what's said. It's certainly right that the libel laws in this country and the contempt laws in this country are a good guideline to take as a sort of worldwide test about where you draw the line on what you publish and what you don't publish.

SNOW: Now at the moment, CNN.COM doesn't have a kind of public chatroom, so you're spared people clambering into your service and revealing names.

WRENN: That's right, yes.

However, again, we are yet to realize who will be blamed if anybody is brought to justice over false claims. We're getting very micro now. There are reports this week that the lawyers are looking at the names of individuals who are sending e-mails to each other, and it begs the question, you know, if someone is brought to book for something which is libelous or defamatory, is it the individual that posts an e-mail to a friend? Is it a chatroom for publishing that e-mail? Is it the Internet service provider that keeps that chatroom on the Internet? We just don't know.

SNOW: I can see the lawyer's fees stacking up for this.

But what do you do then if you want to try and stop somebody who is just a punter out there, placing a name in a chatroom?

GILBERT: John, it's an enormous problem, and the sort of extent of this has been illustrated already, and of course the reality, the practical reality is that a person defamed on the international in the ways we have described, on the e-mail or via a chatroom, is simply not going to be able to catch up with everyone who has been involved in the naming.

The chances are -- and this is why the newspapers in this country are so careful, that they will go for the first person who named them, or a large organization that named them, that apart from anything else has the ability to pay the sort of damages that may be awarded.

SNOW: You wouldn't be interested in getting one of your clerks to enter a chatroom and actually warn people that you were coming after them?

GILBERT: Well, that is a very interesting aspect, because of course David Beckham did this in relation to a particular Web site, and he warned them off, and it succeeded. Now that is really, if you like, a sort of extension of that.

To a certain extent, what's being relied upon is the self- regulation of the Internet, and we've seen this in the way that particularly the footballers particular Web site, the football team's Web site, has actually been shutdown, and you can see them being concerned about the potential liability.

SNOW: But, Nick, isn't the whole beauty of the Internet the freedom. You know, nobody is really very thoughtful about precisely how they phrase things. Aren't you in fact in danger of killing the golden goose?

WRENN: I think perceptions of the Internet are changing quickly, John, and people are becoming very guarded now about what they do. Even just a few years ago, it was regarded as this safe haven, if you like, a sort of open forum where people could chat and gossip and share news and views as they pleased.

Nowadays, that's really not the case. You saw last week, Microsoft taking down its chatroom, whether it was for saving children from pedophiles or for business reasons or for a bit of both. Nevertheless, they were responding to that negative image that chatrooms have.

SNOW: So are the best days of the Internet gone?

WRENN: I think it's redefining itself. It's still very much in its infancy, if you look at it as a medium. It's redefining itself. But regulation -- you know, once money becomes involved, once the lawyers get involved, you're going to have to have regulation.

SNOW: You'd really like to see it conform with the rest of the social life that you have to represent and work with.

GILBERT: Well, John, that would make it a lot easier in terms of understanding where the parameters are. The problem with the Internet is exactly where the parameters are, and to a certain extent it's the practical ability to regulate it. That's really the difficulties with the Internet.

It's interesting that people are becoming guarded, because the effect is actually that the amount of control that will ultimately come I think is limited.

SNOW: It's an innocuous business though. I mean, you can see how if you really did move heavily on one particular site, you could have a sort of conspiracy whereby a lot of people who were determined to create some kind of naming would go and do it on loads and loads of sites and make life for you quite impossible.

GILBERT: And that's the flip side to the restraint. You know, on the one hand, the ability to exchange information and so on is important and that's the great thing about the Internet.

On the other hand, it can be misused, and that is the fear, and of course that is very much the fear in this case.

SNOW: Paul Gilbert, Nick Wrenn, thank you both very much.

And that's all for this edition of the show, but coming up on the next INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, the CIA leak that is causing a tide of controversy in the United States, plus getting dirtier by the day; the race for governor of California finds Arnold Schwarzenegger answering some very uncomfortable questions.

All that and more coming up.

I'm Jon Snow, in London, thanks for joining us.



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