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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired February 1, 2004 - 21:00:00   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. Also on the show, two CNN employees tragically killed in Iraq. We pay tribute.

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 whitewash, 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.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, CNN was devastated this week by the loss of two of its employees in Iraq. We pay tribute to and look at the issues of locally hired media workers when we come back.



Two CNN employees were killed and a third lightly wounded in Iraq on Tuesday. This incident happened as the vehicles were ambushed on their way back to Baghdad. CNN translator and producer Duraid Isa Mohammed and driver Yasser Khatab died as their car came under fire.

John Raedler pays this tribute.


JOHN RAEDLER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Duraid Isa Mohammed's work as a translator and producer was invaluable in CNN's coverage of Iraq over the past year. I know because I had the honor of working with him.

A popular disc jockey in Iraq before the war, Duraid had a sharp mind, a tireless work ethic and a passion for news. Among the highlights of his career with CNN was his reporting of the bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad last office.

DURAID ISA MOHAMMED, CNN TRANSLATOR AND PRODUCER: I am here at the site of the Canal Hotel in Baghdad and the northwestern corner of the building has been blasted apparently by an explosion.

INGRID FORMANEK, SR. CNN PRODUCER: He was the first on the scene and did reporting for us from the ground. He shone. It was his moment and he was very proud of himself, and we were very proud of him.

RAEDLER: But there was more to Duraid than his professional ability. He was compulsively gregarious, jovial, witty.

This is my favorite photo of him. That face was his personality. To know him was to like him.

Driver Yasser Khatab took on the hazards of driving in Iraq with dignity, dedication and professionalism. He was a no-nonsense person who prided himself in getting the job done and being a driver for a news organization in Iraq is a job of constant challenges and dangers.

CHRIS CRAMER, CNN INTL.: The local Iraqi staff (UNINTELLIGIBLE). They want to tell the world about this crisis and we can see today what terrible dangers they're working under.

Duraid was 27 and leaves a widow and two sons, four and two. Yasser was 25 and was engaged to be married.

John Raedler, CNN, Atlanta.


OWEN: Locally hired media workers like Duraid Isa Mohammed and Yasser Khatab are the key to our ability to report from places like Iraq. Without them we would be in no position to get the kind of local knowledge and understanding which informs our reporting.

Joining me now are Rodney Pinder, the director of the International News Safety Institute and Ingrid Formanek, who is the executive producer at CNN. Ingrid hired both Mohammed and Yasser. Ingrid, first, I know this has got to be such a terrible time for you and your colleagues in Baghdad. Tell us about what has happened with the families of those who have been killed and also how you're coping in the bureau with trying to persuade other local journalists that this is something worthwhile to be doing.

FORMANEK: Well, as you can understand, it's a tremendous loss to us here at the CNN office, the organization, but of course for the families of our two colleagues who died in the ambush earlier this week, the families are completely distraught. They knew the dangers that were involved in working for a news organization and they are just trying to come to grips with what has happened to them.

We of course miss them terribly, not only as people but also as colleagues and employees. They both did work that is invaluable to us as journalists in a place like Iraq. Now this holds true not only for Duraid and Yasser but all our colleagues in other places around the world.

They help us understand a place like Iraq or any other country in ways that we could not do by ourselves and we miss them, of course for sentimental reasons, but also for professional reasons.

OWEN: I mean, when we hear about local translators and also local drivers, they're more than just their titles. I mean, they're considerable persons often in their own local communities, aren't they?

FORMANEK: Oh, absolutely. They are basically our eyes and our ears to our community. Without people like them, we could not understand what happens every day in the street. They go into their neighborhoods, they go home, they hear things being said in the streets, they give us feedback. They put things in context.

We very often parachute into a place that we don't know much about and we can't pretend to know everything about every country and therefore we very often rely on the locals for their knowledge, their expertise, for their history, for the knowledge of a place and context in any situation, whether it be a war, whether it be a political development, economic situation, whatever. They are key, key, key personalities and they're certainly more than translators or drivers.

They know what we're trying to do, they know we're trying to tell a story, they know we're trying to get to the truth and they're instrumental in this and without them our jobs would frankly be impossible, and they need to be recognized as legitimate media workers, not just drivers or not just somebody ho comes into work, makes a daily wager and then goes home. No. There is much, much more involvement in this.

It's a quest of something bigger, and most of the people who work with us understand this and they understand the risks that are involved. And certainly Duraid and Yasser understood this and they did take great personal risks.

OWEN: Rodney Pinder, I mean, if that's the case, and listen to Ingrid talk to eloquently about her colleagues, why is it that even such wonderful, worthy organizations, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, don't include their names in the listing of journalists who died in the past year? Why does it vary so? We often see such a discrepancy between the figures put out by, say, the International Federation of Journalists or RSF and CPJ. Why is that?

RODNEY PINDER, INTL. NEWS SAFETY INSTITUTE: I can't really speak for the CPJ and others, but I think they tend to take a purist view of a "journalist," quote/unquote. I think that we ought to be looking at people in the field as part of the team that bring the news home, and as it was so eloquently put, none of the journalists could do their job properly without the support of these people.

We shouldn't forget that of the 24 news media personnel who have died in this awful war for journalism, six of them, six of them were drivers and translators. They were local staff, and they ought to be memorialized and remembered just the same as the journalists, because without their work, the journalists couldn't function.

OWEN: And isn't it really more difficult for them in their own communities, as Ingrid was suggesting, I mean, when in fact they don't leave their work to go back to a hotel and be supported by an international organization. Often they're going back to their homes, they're neighborhoods.

PINDER: Absolutely, and not only not back to their hotel, I mean, international journalists go back to their home countries eventually. Locals have got -- they live there, they survive there, they have their families there. Can you image anything worse than going out with a news team to cover a story, say, of a bombardment of a village, and that's where your family lives. The trauma that some of these people undergo, the suffering that they go, the problems that they encounter at home.

I mean, I have good friends who are local cameramen in the West Bank for example, and the agonies of worry and stress that they go through at the thought of their families at home while they're out bringing the story to us and the rest of the world, it's unimaginable. And there is no relief. There is nowhere to go. There's nowhere to go to relax and enjoy themselves. They're there and they're stuck there.

OWEN: But, Ingrid, isn't it very difficult for CNN, given this tragedy, to go out and recruit the next set of translators and drivers knowing what has just happened, knowing how their families must feel about the risks that they're going to be taking?

FORMANEK: It's extremely difficult. Even before we had this tragedy happen to us and the families of Duraid and Yasser, there were already many doubts that some of our colleagues, our local colleagues here, had, because the know that as foreigners, very often we can be a target in places where we work and it makes people think about what they do. And their families ask them not to come and work with us because they think it's a very risky situation.

OWEN: Ingrid Formanek, thank you very much. Take good care of yourself in Baghdad. Rodney Pinder, from INSI, thank you 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.



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