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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired December 20, 2003 - 03:30:00   ET


SHEILA MACVICAR, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Sheila MacVicar, in London. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
In this edition, the Pentagon says it scored one of its biggest victories in the battle for confidence in Iraq. How were the pictures taken after Saddam's capture interpreted by the world media?

And later, the murder trial that shocked the world. The British media draws criticism over its coverage of the Soham murders.

We begin this week with the capture of Saddam Hussein. Weekends are traditionally quiet periods for the world's newsrooms, but anyone who was on duty last weekend will always remember the moment these pictures came in from a coalition briefing in Baghdad, showing for the first time a disheveled and defeated Saddam Hussein, president since 1979, and now captured without a shot fired.

The only moment at which the Bush administration appeared to celebrate came right at the beginning.


PAUL BREMER, U.S. ADMINISTRATOR IN IRAQ: Ladies and gentlemen, we got him.

MACVICAR (voice-over): Only several days later did the president get close to describing what many of Saddam Hussein's opponents now want to see happen.

GEORGE W. BUSH, U.S. PRESIDENT: I think he ought to receive the ultimate penalty for what he's done to his people. This is a disgusting tyrant who deserves justice, the ultimate justice. But that will be decided not by the president of the United States but by the citizens of Iraq, in one form or another.

There needs to be a process that is transparent and open. We'll be working with the Iraqis to develop a system that people will say is open and is fair.


MACVICAR: Western media are largely celebrating the arrest with some leaning towards openly humiliating Saddam Hussein. Arab media arguably showed a broader range of opinions.

The Iraqi daily, "Al-Zaman," said "The capture of Saddam is another window of hope for a clean Iraq swimming in sunshine and faraway from a dark past crowded by the dungeons of the Secret Service."

"Al-Ta'akhi," linked to the Kurdish Democratic Party, says, "The time has come to control emotions and return to tranquility, logic and contemplation."

The Palestinian daily, "Al-Kuds," says, "The saddest and most disgraceful thing is that toppling the regime was carried out by the occupation forces."

And in London, the daily "Al-Hayat's" deputy editor wrote, "A corpse would have been pardoned for his deeds, but it would at least have helped claim that he paid the price."

Joining me now are the foreign editors of "Al Hayat," Baria Alamuddin, and from Washington, "Newsweek" correspondent Mark Hosenball.

Mark, let me begin with you. We heard President Bush say to his staffers on the news of the capture that he wanted the White House to be what he said would be a, quote, "no gloat zone." Was he successful?

MARK HOSENBALL, "NEWSWEEK": I guess not entirely. I mean, they sem to be pretty cockahooped (ph) about this development and, you know, the pictures are playing again and again and again. This is the picture, certainly the picture of the year, maybe the picture of the decade, even though the decade is not very long gone. And they're playing it for what it's worth.

They're enjoying it, and it's also, of course, an election season just beginning here in Washington, and these are good pictures for Bush's reelection.

MACVICAR: I want to come back to the theme of election in a minute. Baria, I want to ask you, we saw in the aftermath of the deaths of Saddam's sons, Uday and Qusay, that there was widespread disbelief. Do you think this time the coalition has managed this news event that there is now widespread acceptance that Saddam Hussein himself has in fact been captured?

BARIA ALAMUDDIN, "AL-HAYAT": Well, yes. I think it's much better, as you said, staged, and I think the Americans learned a lesson through that.

But however, there are still people in the Arab world believing that Saddam is still alive and this is just one of his doubles, and this is not actually true. But I would really say and stress again, it's just a small minority that think so.

Most people believe it is Saddam. Most people believe that the capture was right. There are different reportings of the event, as you've seen, but in general, yes, there is more belief this time, because the Americans said they did the DNA test and so mostly there is belief, I would say.

MACVICAR: Mark, that in itself has to be seen as a victory, both for the Pentagon, for the Coalition Provisional Authority and for the Bush White House, that there was not this widespread skepticism of the possibility that this was or was not Saddam, that in fact they put it out there, it was accepted and they got to move on.

HOSENBALL: I think that's right. I think that's why they did what they did. I mean, some people said that this was triumphalism or this was insulting a prisoner of war, or whatever, because apparently you're not supposed to insult prisoners of war. There is even a letter in "The New York Times" yesterday saying it was against medical ethics to show somebody examining somebody in a medical examination.

None of that really bothers me. I mean, if indeed it's going to convince Saddam that he has been captured -- if it's going to convince the Iraqi people and the world that he's been captured, then what's wrong with it? He sure as hell looked like Saddam to me, and his mannerisms were, you know, Saddam-like. It looked like the same guy -- except for the beard -- that we had seen gloating or smirking behind the table there with all his generals.

And I think in this case it was completely appropriate to put out the video in the way that they did, you know, even if it humiliated the guy. I mean, you know, here is a guy who was a dictator, who humiliated his own people for years, who acted like the king of the world, and this demonstrated pretty clearly that the king has fallen.

MACVICAR: There is this question of humiliation. They clearly were images that were meant to show him in a dramatically weakened position. But, Baria, from the point-of-view of people in the Arab world, were they images that humiliated not only the man, but the nation?

ALAMUDDIN: Well, yes, indeed. You know, Arab culture is full of heroic stories, and for us, especially for men, heroism is a demand. It is the best quality in a man, indeed.

Also, for somebody like Saddam, who was carrying guns and showing guns everywhere he went, who was, you know, making himself look like this very brave man all the time, while many people, of course, believed he was a coward, sending people to war, et cetera, while he himself was doing nothing.

But in general, yes, there was this (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in the Arab world and this is not something that is looked very favorably, especially coming from the American administration. This has nothing to do with loving Saddam or not loving Saddam. It's more to do with not loving the American administration and what the American administration stands for, and especially its policies in the area.

So I would have preferred just for that purpose that things would have been done differently. And also some people are saying this is, after all, a president of a country. No matter what it is, he should have been treated in a much different way.

There is this debate going on, yes indeed, but I must say to my colleague, I think the picture of the century or the decade must be the capture of bin Laden more than Saddam Hussein. He is the one we need to capture.

MACVICAR: It's a picture we haven't yet seen, of course.

Mark, you raise the question of this being an election year. There's been, it would seem, just a very little bump up for President Bush in the polls with the capture of Saddam. Certainly the markets took it in stride and then dropped back down again. The dollar didn't get any bump out of it. It just sort of seems that -- and there's a long time between now and next November.

HOSENBALL: Well, that's entirely true. I mean, obviously, now that they have Saddam, they can continue to make a big deal out of his capture. They can draw out the issue of his interrogation, his capture, his alleged crimes, et cetera, for months and months and months. Although they risk if the White House overplays the Saddam capture thing and overplays the Saddam evilness thing, making Americans bored about it.

I've been debating with some of my colleagues, both in the print and TV media, in our conversations, you know, how quickly is it that the public is going to become bored with it. The fact is, already in America other news, such as the arrest of Michael Jackson and some court cases here involving the detainees, has bumped Saddam from the top of the news.

So there is a risk here of the Bush people kind of overdoing it, because the American public has a very short attention span. So we'll sort of see how it plays out.

MACVICAR: But that, Baria, has to be the next question, of what -- now that they've got him -- they've got him alive -- what do they do with him? How quickly do they put him on trial? Under what form do they put him on trial? How do they treat him between now and then?

ALAMUDDIN: Yes, absolutely. I agree very much with what my colleague was saying as far as conspiracy theories in the Arab world goes.

One of them is that he actually has been captured before. There was this theory going on around Kuwait, I understand, saying that when they showed the pictures of him being captured in that place, there were some dates on top of a tree, and this is not the season for dates, so he much have been captured before.

So I don't know about that, but I think what they need to do is get him to trial as soon as they can, and I hope that this trial will be monitored internationally and is going to be very transparent and very fair. Because, again, we go back to the conspiracy theories. People are saying, like, maybe he will not be able to say what he wants about the involvement of the Americans and the British and that Iran-Iraq (UNINTELLIGIBLE) at the beginning. Maybe he will not be allowed to say all the secrets he knows about world leaders here and there.

So I think -- also I think he needs to be treated fairly. We are in an age and time when human rights must be and should be respected, even the worst criminals, which actually he is one of them, should be treated in a humane and fair way, and for the Iraqi people's sake, the quicker the better. You see, these people have suffered a lot under Saddam Hussein and the quicker they get him out of their systems, of their minds, and also for the insurgencies it's very important that this is seen to be done quickly, because people unto now they still would probably believe that maybe he would run away or come back.

You still here these stories. This is why when a newspaper published his picture in Iraq, with Ahmed Chalabi the other day, all the editions were out of the market. People were buying it at some ridiculous prices, simply to prove to themselves that he was caught, that yes, this is Saddam Hussein. He is deep into the psyche of the Iraqi people because of his appalling crimes, of course.

MACVICAR: Mark, when you -- we're talking about that trial. There is a possibility that the trial may begin in some months, perhaps before we get to the election of 2004. There is the possibility of some very unpleasant reminiscence for the U.S. administration coming from Saddam Hussein and his defense lawyers on trial.

HOSENBALL: Well, some of that is true.

First of all, I don't think that there is going to be any trial before an Iraqi sort of sovereign government, whatever that means, perhaps an internationally-recognized Iraqi sovereign government, which is yet another step forward, is installed. I mean, I understand the lawyers in the Bush administration have already decided that they can't put him on trial until there is a recognized Iraqi government because otherwise it would amount to kind of, quote/unquote, "handing him over" to a rival. So, you know, that puts it off at least until next June.

Again, yes, there's always the threat. I mean, we know that, for example, and there was just another story about some of this in "The Washington Post" today, that Donald Rumsfeld, of all people, as President Reagan's envoy to the Middle East, went to see Saddam in December 1983 and seemed to get along with him pretty well.

MACVICAR: There are pictures.

HOSENBALL: And there was another meeting in 1984. And I have records in my office showing that the U.S. government provided Saddam with presidential helicopters in the Reagan administration and in the 80's and that they sent germ samples to Iraq, and they sent computers to the secret police. A certain amount of this information is already on the record but, you know, Saddam could come out and try to embarrass the administration, and all of that happened kind of a long time ago.

Is it really going to embarrass anybody? I mean, I wrote a cover story about some of the Reagan administration's dealings with Iraq for the "New Republic" in I think maybe 1988 or something. Does anybody really care about that anymore? It was an awful long time ago, so I don't know whether -- I mean Saddam may use that to try to embarrass the West. I don't know that it has much impact anymore.

MACVICAR: Well, I guess we will come back to this as a recurring theme as things move forward, as we learn more about the conditions under which he is held.

Thank you both very much, Mark Hosenball, in Washington, "Newsweek," and Baria Alamuddin, foreign editor, of "Al-Hayat," here in London. Thank you both very much.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, have the media navigated a very tricky path in covering the murders of two young girls? The trial that exposes what critics say are the contradictions of British press law.

Stay with us.


MACVICAR: Welcome back.

Outside of the capture of Saddam Hussein, one very different story dominated much of the world's press this week, the trial of a British couple accused over the deaths of two young girls.

Happier pictures of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman taken shortly before their brutal murder have been scored into our minds for months, raising the inevitable questions about a jury's ability to focus on the facts in such an emotional case.

Now Britain's attorney general is investigating some newspapers to see if their coverage prejudiced the trial, and ore questions are being asked about the media's ability to report unproven allegations against the convicted murderer Ian Huntley.

Joining me now are Paul Gilbert, media lawyer with Finers Stephens Innocent in London, and Peter Preston, former editor of Britain's "Guardian" newspaper, who now writes about these issues in this weekend's "Observer."

To turn to you first, Peter, this was a truly extraordinary trial, perhaps made more extraordinary by the focus of public attention and it seems public interest on this trial.

PETER PRESTON, JOURNALIST: Oh, yes. I mean, from the beginning, two lovely little girls murdered at the end of a series of appalling crimes like that, which again had a high media profile, in a sort of P.D. James (ph) type sort of Cambridge village. It was always going to be a case which had a lot of salience attached to it.

The police wanted help. They called the media in. There was sort of a very dramatic hunt for the girls over a period of days. And in a sense the police helped buildup the interest in the case. And after that, it just took off.

MACVICAR: This question about the investigation and possibly newspapers being perhaps in contempt of court, given as Peter has described the circumstance, is it not reasonable to assume that there would have been a huge amount of press coverage? And given that there was such a huge amount of press coverage, that it would have been impossible to find a jury which did not have at least some knowledge of this case.

PAUL GILBERT, FINERS STEPHENS INNOCENT: Well, I think there are sort of two issues that come out of that. The first is the way that the interest in the story built up. And in that sense, one has to have a degree of sympathy for the newspapers, because as Peter has described, the police were quite literally drip feeding information throughout the investigation.

And in a way, they were building up this interest. You had this very attractive photograph of the two girls. The story was really a great story in that sense. It looks good and it builds up and it builds up. And that, as I say, was a lot to do with I think the police.

The other aspect is this question of can the jury, having seen the coverage that occurred at the time, go into the court with a blank mind and listen only to the evidence and convict or acquit only on the evidence. There is a well-known psychological phenomenon called fade factor, and that is very much what the prosecution rely on.

They say, look, the sensational reporting occurred at the time. We're now in a trial that takes place 16 months later, that that would have gone to the back of their mind. Of course they don't have blank minds, but they will take seriously the directions of the judge, and they will listen only to the evidence and make their decision based on that evidence.

MACVICAR: Do you believe that -- Peter?

PRESTON: Oh, I do. And I think the little bit of research that has been done in this area show that you should trust the jury just as much as the judge. In fact, judges can be slightly off the wall on occasion. Juries can be very, very sensible most of the time. And there's no research evidence that shows anything to the contrary.

MACVICAR: We are now living in a very different world. What's to stop -- I mean, obviously juries are always enjoined by the judge not to watch television or read newspaper reporting of a particular trial that they may be involved in, but what's to stop an enterprising juror from going home and tapping into a search on the Internet the name of the potential accused?

PRESTON: Absolutely nothing. I mean, that's why the British laws of contempt, which are particularly onerous, have been sort of falling apart, I think, for over 20 years now, under first the weight of IRA terrorism, big sort of national campaign. Find this terrorist, here's a big picture of him. Run him to earth and then suddenly he gets charged and it's as though he was emerging sort of blankly from nowhere. Of course people knew the history.

We had some very high profile serial killers; the Yorkshire affair, the Black Panther. That kind of stuff. Again, there was, got him, got you at the end, and the contempt laws operating were pretty artificial, and so it is again with this case.

I mean, I think, actually what it shows to me, as a case which we now know is filled with the police not communicating with each other, where the Umberside (ph) police only at last knew that Huntley was involved because they saw a picture of him on television and somebody phoned up Cambridge Row and said, "Hey, I know that guy." That's 10, 11 days afterwards.

To be going on about the media in contempt in this particular instance strikes me as utterly beside the point.

GILBERT: And I think we're in a different era now, in terms of coverage of police investigations, where we now have a number of Rolling news services, and the demands of those Rolling news services mean that there is a far greater coverage of a police investigation at its early stages than we have ever had before.

And I think Peter is right. With the impact of the Internet, we have to really understand, when it comes to protecting the integrity of a final trial, that there is information out there that a potential juror, or a juror during the course of a trial, could go and look up.

And the other point, which I tend to agree with Peter, is currently the record for prosecutions for contempt. It's woeful. We heard only a few weeks ago that the attorney general will not take any action against David Blunkett, the English home secretary, for what were quite appalling comments made about someone who was arrested who was a terrorist.

PRESTON: See, that's a different strand.

GILBERT: But you see, I frankly don't see any difference. This man will have to stand a trial. He's entitled to a presumption of innocence. And yet no action is taken against home secretary.

One wonders, therefore, quite what the -- how a newspaper seeing that sort of decision will interpret the way in which they'll be dealt with and the extent to which they will push the boundaries that they will prejudice a trial for the sake of a good headline, for the sake of increasing circulation.

MACVICAR: This trial also saw the development of some new features. Cameras obviously are not permitted in British courts. Perhaps there is room for a debate about whether or not they should be. But the news media, or certain strands of the news media, did as much as they could to take their viewers, their audiences, into those court rooms in transcripts, recreations, graphic dramatizations of the scene in the court.

PRESTON: We've all learned a little bit, actually, from the Hutton Inquiry, into how government scientist David Kelly committed suicide over Iraq, where a lot of dramatization of the Hutton Inquiry, which was not quite on television but almost on television. You can go next door in the courtroom and watch it there.

That's been dramatized, that's a play running in a London theatre and about to be on television. And I think television programs and channels Sky have picked up that technique and said we can develop this for a huge case, like Soham.

MACVICAR: And it's very effective. Do you think it will lead to wider debate about bringing real cameras into courtrooms?

GILBERT: I think we're pushing forward all the time. I mean the point -- we did actually have cameras at the end in the Hutton Inquiry and of course the distinction between the Hutton Inquiry is that it's not a court for the purposes -- it's the legislation that controls cameras in court, and that's how the cameras were allowed in.

We've had cameras in the Shipman (ph) Inquiry that were allowed in as well. But it does seem that really what we're having -- and again, it's the demands of the rolling news service, with these virtual reality courtrooms. We had one of the Sky news presenters walking through a virtual reality home of the accused where the offenses were alleged to have taken place at the end of the trial.

MACVICAR: Thank you both very much. Paul Gilbert, of Finers Stephens Innocent, Peter Preston, former editor of the "Guardian," now writing in this week's "Observer." Thank you both very much.

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 Sheila MacVicar, thanks for joining me.



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