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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired January 31, 2004 - 03:30:00   ET


JOHN OWEN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm John Owen 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 BBC takes the full heat of Hutton in what is now the biggest crisis in the corporation's history. Plus, not even half-way to the White House and yet their faces are becoming recognized worldwide. So what is it about this story that's keeping us captivated?

But first, judgment day for the BBC as the much anticipated Hutton report into the death of David Kelly cleared the Blair government and castigated the BBC.

Lord Hutton found editorial controls at the public broadcaster to be defective. This of course centered around the report by BBC correspondent Andrew Gilligan. In it, Gilligan said the government had sexed up its Iraq weapons dossier with unreliable intelligence. Lord Hutton cleared the government of this claim. Both the director general of the BBC and its chairman have resigned since the report was made public.

Many in the British press expressed outrage, accusing Lord Hutton of a white wash, but one man who thinks the media have a big lesson to learn from this, Tony Blair's former head of communication, Alistair Campbell.


ALISTAIR CAMPBELL, FMR. BRITISH HEAD OF COMMUNICATION: If the public knew the truth about politicians, they would be pleasantly surprised. If they knew the truth about the way that parts of our media operate, they would be absolutely horrified. Either the media will learn (UNINTELLIGIBLE) lessons from this report or the fact that one story was wrong. I hope it might be a small step towards a more responsible and more honest media culture.


OWEN: Joining me now here in the studio, Sir Christopher Bland, the former chairman of the BBC, Peter Oborne, political editor of the "Spectator" and Peter Hitchens, columnist with the "Mail on Sunday." And joining us by screen, Philip Stephens, associate editor of the "Financial Times" and the author of the biography soon to be published, "Tony Blair: The Making of a World Leader."

Gentlemen, you just heard what Alistair Campbell has been saying. Isn't it fair at this point to say he's got a right to take his pound of flesh? That in fact it is time for journalists to do a little self- reflection on what was a very damning indictment of journalism in general and specifically this reporter of the BBC?

PETER HITCHENS, "MAIL ON SUNDAY": I think it's absurd for Mr. Campbell to lecture journalists. He has in fact run his press department and indeed in my view the government very much like the roughest red-topped tabloid newspaper since the moment he walked into Downing Street and obtained the special powers which he had until he resigned.

And I would also ask why exactly it is that he is no longer the prime minister's press secretary if he is such a perfect and spotless person, as he now claims to be and as the report makes him out to be? I think the whole thing is ludicrous and for him to go around lecturing anyone on virtue is verging on the comical.

OWEN: Philip Stephens, I would assume based on what you wrote yesterday in the "Financial Times" that you have a slightly different take on that.

PHILIP STEPHENS, "FINANCIAL TIMES": Well, I'm not really going to setup my own views against those of Alistair Campbell. I think what I do think is having read Lord Hutton's report carefully, I wouldn't say that I agree with every word, every sentence, every small judgment, but I do think it adds up to a pretty damning indictment of the way that the editorial processes and systems in the BBC operated.

It wasn't just a question of a reporter making a mistake, misspeaking, we all do that. And I think we all have to put our hands up. But as in politic, so in the media, it's the sort of aftermath, the cover up, that caused the problems, and I think we subject politicians to minute scrutiny every day. We found it very uncomfortable as journalists, I think, to be under the same scrutiny, and I think it's time -- this is one of those occasions where we have to put our hands up and say hang on, maybe the standards that we apply to our journalism are not as tight and as strong as they should be.

OWEN: Sir Christopher Bland, John Snow, who often sits in this chair on this program, said there but for the grace of God could have gone any of us in terms of journalists. What if you had been back as chair of the BBC during this? Would you have been comfortable in terms of accepting that quality of journalism?

CHRISTOPHER BLAND, FMR. BBC CHAIRMAN: I would have gone if I had been back in that chair. I don't know. I think it's a great danger to assume that things would have been different if you had been in charge.

I agree that the BBC needs to have the highest possible standards and it fell well short of those. I don't think, though, that it's a universal malaise of the BBC and I do think that the BBC, although it has made some mistakes, it's actually apologized for them, not just yesterday and the day before, but several months ago, during the Hutton inquiry, and it's put in place some further safeguards to make sure that this kind of thing doesn't happen again.

But it will happen again. Big news gathering organizations the size of the BBC make mistakes. The problem is here that it made a very serious mistake and was slow to correct it.

OWEN: But does Alistair Campbell have the right to say this in a kind of triumphalist manner in that his reputation had been impugned and he feels that Hutton cleared it?

BLAND: Well, some of that, of course, is true. His reputation was impugned and Hutton did clear him.

But what Hutton didn't say and he should have said as a matter of fairness and background was that the ferocious pressure that Alistair Campbell had brought to bear, not just on the BBC across the piece (ph), and not just on this particular story, but on the BBC's coverage of the whole Iraq crisis and almost any issue on which the BBC has criticized the government, has been so intense that you can understand that even if it doesn't forgive, it at least explains why the BBC's response to Campbell was as it was.

OWEN: Peter Oborne, do you again share any sense of responsibility for the BBC's failure in this case in terms of the journalism that was practiced here? Do you associate yourself with the journalism?

PETER OBORNE, "SPECTATOR": I think there remains a paradox about this whole affair, is that the BBC story was broadly true, that the document was sexed up. Abundant evidence was provided to the Hutton inquiry to demonstrate that, quite shocking evidence, whereas the government's dossier was broadly untrue. There were no weapons of mass destruction.

That's an incredible mystery which overlooking the Hutton report, it is so paradoxical. The people who are right were wrong, that's the BBC. The people who were wrong, the government, are right, and I read through quite a bit of the Hutton report. I cannot understand -- I just cannot understand how he reached the conclusions that he did.

There's an astonishing absence of balance in the report. I think a number of his criticisms of the BBC are fair, by the way, I think that Philip Stephens is right about that. There were some grave errors, not just at the start but throughout the process. But whereas he constantly condemns the BBC, looks for the worst thing, considers the most distant evidence to condemn them. On the point of view of the of the government, on the other hand, he seems to forgive every single one of its many failings, many very grave failings.

And above all, let us not forget the fact that the British army went to war last April on the grounds, according to the prime minister, of the imminent threat of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. Those weapons of mass destruction do not exist. We went to war for a lie. Mr. Gilligan was the first reporter to reveal that fact and he has just been slated as a liar. I don't understand this paradox, I wish someone would explain it to me.

STEPHENS: But there are, Peter, there are two stories entangled here and you can see it in Washington as well as in London. There's the question of whether governments, plural, the American government, this government, other governments, basically massaged, embellished, invented the intelligence, and there's the separate question of whether the intelligence itself was absolutely accurate.

Now you know, what Lord Hutton has said is the government didn't invent or make up the intelligence. It was broadly as the heads of the intelligence agencies said it was. So there is a question of course that remains. OK, if all the heads of the intelligence agencies, as they actually testified to Hutton, signed off on this dossier, how is it this dossier was so wrong? That's a separate question.

HITCHENS: There's a simple answer to that, simple answer to that, Philip. Which is that the heads of intelligence services in this government, which has now been handed over to party political direction, serve a party political purpose and are trying to please their masters.

The arms control experts are queuing up in Washington, D.C. to say, first of all, there were no weapons. Secondly, that the intelligence services souped up their analyses to please their masters. These things are accepted in the United States.


HITCHENS: It's the reason why it's no good saying the heads of the intelligence services agreed with the government. Under the system of government, party government, which we have in this country now, without an independent civil service anymore, the heads of the intelligence service are simply arms of the government who do what they're told.

If you look further down in the intelligence services, you might well find dissent, and that of course is why Dr. Kelly's original revelations were so explosive.

OWEN: We're here really to talk about not what failed to be reported in the Hutton report, but to talk about what exactly Hutton weighed in on and what we should be talking about and what it's implications are for journalism, not only in the BBC but outside of the BBC. What about -- what does this mean now in terms of the use of anonymous sources? How are other newspapers and other broadcasters now going to deal with this issue of one anonymous source? The "Guardian" has already said that it's changing its policy somewhat.

HITCHENS: They should pay no attention at all to it. This is groveling to Hutton, it's absurd.


HITCHENS: These conclusions, which have no relation to the evidence in the report.

OWEN: I'm sorry, I want to talk, though, about.


HITCHENS: The really crucial part of this is, Hutton has judged the media as if it were the government. The media do not have the power -- the BBC cannot send people to their deaths. They're not making war.


OWEN: I'm going to stop you there, Peter. I'm going to stop you there, peter Hitchens, because I want to talk about what is still a serious issue, and that is sourcing.

Greg Dyke (ph) this morning said, does it mean you cannot put on a particular source who has an opinion because you can't corroborate exactly what that source said. That is a real blow for journalism, in his view.

STEPHENS: It's not a real blow for journalism. What it is is a caution for journalism.

We all know as journalists the dangers of the single source. You can have one -- and I explained earlier, there was someone earlier in my career when I was political editor of the "Financial Times," someone senior in the security services gave me a story about the then government's connections with terrorists in Northern Ireland.

I thought I had a wonderful scoop. When the story was looked at and we went through process after process, it turned out that one person in the middle of an argument within the intelligence agencies themselves was trying to use the "Financial Times" to get across that argument. And that's the danger that we all know.

And I think we should all look at the text book for this, "All The President's Men," the story of Watergate, and the sort of controls that were then applied to make sure that that story was accurate all the way through, are the ones that we should all be applying, particularly to single source stories on sensitive issues.

OWEN: Christopher Bland, would you be calling for that same kind of reconsideration of the use of sources if you were there?

BLAND: I think those rules already exist, and what happened in this case was most of the rules were not followed. Not only in the first instance, but in the follow-up and the investigation. That was the problem.

And that was in essence where Hutton was right. What the short- term danger is, that the BBC and indeed other journalists, are very nervous about investigative journalism and give it up or tread so softly that they might as well not go for a walk at all.

I don't believe that is a real danger for very long. I think the BBC is a very resilient organization full of determined, very independent minded journalists. But the short-term danger is obvious. I hope that we can take the prime minister's words, which were very generous, in terms of his views that an independent, critical and powerful BBC is essential to the health of politics and indeed this nation.

HITCHENS: But if only for the BBC, for many years has been a subservient and in my view groveling servant of the government in many ways, completely failing to call it to account in terms of domestic politics and excluding its opponent from much of the national debate.


HITCHENS: On this one occasion when it actually does something independent and inconvenient to the government, the government comes down on it like a barrage of Howitzers, and it cannot stand even the slightest criticism. That is the nature of this government. It hates all criticism and would suppress it all if it could.

OWEN: But then, to all of you, how does this then play into what's going to be a ferocious debate about the terms of the renewal of the BBC license and what kinds of accommodations it's going to have to make now since it's in such a position now of defensiveness?

BLAND: Well, luckily there are two years for that process to take place, and at the moment there is still a huge amount of heat and fallout from Hutton. I think in a month's time and in three month's time there will be a quite different perspective.

This isn't the first time the BBC has made mistakes. It won't be the last. I'm old enough to remember, although I wasn't at the BBC, the "Real Lives" controversy. Director generals have gone before. Never a chairman, but director generals have gone before, but the BBC has survived it.

And I absolutely disagree with your view about the BBC being the government's lackey. I think that's an absurd and ridiculous overstatement, and if ever it's been demonstrated not to be true, it's been demonstrated in recent weeks.

OWEN: That is going to be the last word on this brief discussion. Thank you very much Christopher Bland, Peter Oborne, Peter Hitchens, and also Philip Stephens, from the "Financial Times." Thank you very much.

Lord Hutton may have given his verdict on the BBC and the government, but one issue the report did not address, those ever elusive weapons of mass destruction. And in the United States, well, a very different story this week.

We'll be back with that and more in a moment. Stay with us.


OWEN: Welcome back.

The United States presidential elections will be a major international story, but few could have predicted such international interest in the events leading up to the Democratic nomination. These faces are becoming all too familiar. But should they be?

I'm joined now by Sidney Blumenthal, the former senior aide to President Bill Clinton and the author of the book "The Clinton Wars."

Sidney Blumenthal, why is this particular race capturing the public imagination around the world, not just in North America but in Asia, in Europe, everywhere that CNN travels?

SIDNEY BLUMENTHAL, FMR. CLINTON AIDE: Well, the Democrats have not had a voice for years about President Bush. There is tremendous controversy and conflict involving his policies, and yet the Democrats in the Congress are a minority. They have no ability to call committee hearings. They're split by region and ideology.

And now with the Democratic primaries, they're going through a very dramatic process involving an incredible cast of characters to find their single voice.

OWEN: Is it because there is such an interesting cast of characters sparked initially by Howard Dean? Is it the fact that they are interesting personalities, or the process itself is resonating as people look at how it's unfolding?

BLUMENTHAL: Well, the characters, the candidates, have done unique things. Howard Dean has created a new movement within the Democratic Party based on the Internet and he promised to bring constituencies into the party that would transform American politics.

Then you have John Edwards, the very attractive, young senator from North Carolina and Joe Lieberman, the former vice presidential candidate, and then John Kerry, the Vietnam War hero and Wes Clark, the former Supreme Allied commander. So this is a kind of stunning field.

And then the dynamic itself was unexpected with Dean being targeted by all the others and falling under intense media scrutiny and then blowing up under that pressure. He couldn't handle the stress, and he imploded, all across the landscape. John Kerry in Iowa ran around him. His campaign was considered to be completely dead, and then he vaulted to New Hampshire, where Wesley Clark thought he would be the anti-Dean, and John Kerry from the neighboring state of Massachusetts ran away with it.

And now the whole primary process is spread across the whole country, from South Carolina all the way to Oklahoma, with the candidates sprinting against each other, and you have to remember that this is a sudden death contest, and people, when they lose, they really lose. And when they win, they really win.

OWEN: (AUDIO GAP) David Kay, whose testimony electrified everyone earlier this week. How does that play into this race? And how are the candidates seizing upon the Kay testimony to try to incorporate that into their campaigns?

BLUMENTHAL: I think the fact that David Kay had said that, quote, "We were all wrong," about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has had a very big impact immediately on the Democratic campaign. One of the things that it's done is to actually reduce that issue as an intramural internal issue of division within the Democratic Party.

All the candidates now can point to that, regardless of whether or not they voted for the war resolution, which a number of the senators did who are in the race. And so they've drawn a line now under their own vote and they can now as it were be all against the conduct of the war and the way in which it was presented by President Bush.

The Kay statement now is dividing the intelligence committee here in Washington between Democrats and Republicans. It has setoff a new round in the war between the White House and the CIA and the other intelligence agencies, and Kay, while his testimony has been electric about the absence of WMDs, has also said that President Bush is innocent. What he has not spoken to is, and seems to be justifying his own role, is what kinds of pressures were applied to the intelligence agencies by the administration.

And that controversy is just beginning with calls, including bipartisan calls -- Senator McCain has joined in -- for an inquiry into the entire matter.

OWEN: Sidney, this is a program, as you know, about journalism and media. Is there anything new about the media and journalistic coverage of this particular campaign?

BLUMENTHAL: Well, the campaign itself has involved new media at its heart involving the Internet, which is a form of communication. And the Internet was seen as a new way to organize people. And the Dean campaign was premised on it and now the other campaigns are also doing it. And so the more mainstream media has tried to cover how other media have permutated into campaign (AUDIO GAP). And that's been very interesting to follow.

The media has also had an impact on the way in which it blew up Howard Dean's now famous scream. It turns out that he was shouting into a microphone that really didn't broadcast and that this event now was distorted. Well, it's too late for Dean. But this is the kind of short- term media even that impacts on a political campaign as it rushes through the process.

OWEN: Sidney Blumenthal, thank you very much.

That's all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, but on the next program we pay tribute to two CNN employees who were tragically killed in Baghdad this week.

I'm John Owen, in London. Thanks for joining us.



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