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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired February 28, 2004 - 16:30:00   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, should journalists be given medals for accompanying soldiers to war? The British government thinks so. Plus, reenacting court proceedings for 24 hour news. SKY NEWS did it and won a prestigious award for their innovation.

But first, "Father forgive them for they know not what to do," these said to be the words of Jesus, speaking about his crucifiers, but there is little forgiveness in Mel Gibson's new film "The Passion." You either love it or you hate it.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The most talked about movie of the New Year, "The Passion of the Christ," officially opens this morning across the country.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: More now on today's opening of Mel Gibson's controversial movie, "The Passion of the Christ."


MACVICAR: Film critics and the media-at-large are devoting hundreds of hours of air time and column inches to the film. That's how much passion this passion as stirred.

Charges of anti-Semitism are being debated endlessly, as is the factual correctness of the movie, but one thing most critics agree on, a seemingly gratuitous level of violence, blood and gore.

Joining us now, in New York, David Sterritt, film critic at the "Christian Science Monitor."

Now, you have to ask the question, certainly at the distance from Europe where, again, we have not yet seen this film here, is whether or not part of all of this discussion and debate has not been part of some if you will diabolically genius plot on the part of Mel Gibson to get the kind of publicity that filmmakers would give their eye-teeth for.

DAVID STERRITT, "CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR": Yes, of course. In fact, I think the whole marketing campaign for this movie, the whole buildup to this movie, has been very much like a political campaign, a grassroots kind of political campaign.

The movie was held-back from critics, like me, until the very last minute. It opened in America in Wednesday and it was not shown to critics until just two days before that, but they were showing it to lots of other people. They were having screenings for church groups and organizations and that kind of thing in different parts of America to get people talking about it, and to get certain, I think -- to encourage the circulation of certain rumors that amazing things happened on the set while the movie was being filmed and that kind of thing.

And then also, of course, the media started talking about it. Weeks, I think, months -- I'm sure, months -- before the movie was going to open and even before the movie was finished. So you had people debating the possible anti-Semitic overtones of the film in the media for months beforehand. And of course this kind of thing simply builds interest and curiosity about a movie.

There is an American TV critic who once said I could say that something was the worst movie ever made, and I'd still be selling tickets, because people would say, well, it couldn't be that bad, I'm going to go check it out.

So any kind of publicity is good publicity. It's an old saying, but there's a lot of truth to it, and this is free publicity, which is simply a Hollywood filmmakers dream. It's any filmmakers dream.

MACVICAR: The best kind of publicity. But there is this very serious undertone that has been raised, this question of anti-Semitism.

Today the chief rabbi of Israel appealing to the pope to say something about this film. Now we don't think the chief rabbi has seen the film either. We don't think the pope has seen the film, but we seem to have entered into a whole level of debate here. We're not just talking about a cultural experience, a filmic experience. We're talking about something that is very central to the way in which people's relate.

How did we come to this place?

STERRITT: It's a very interesting fact that this movie has touched off tremendous anxieties among anybody, Jewish or not, who is concerned with anti-Semitism.

My own feeling about the movie is that it does not contain what we might call anti-Semitic propaganda, and of course Gibson has somewhat ambiguously disavowed claims that he might be anti-Semitic himself or that there might be anti-Semitism in the movie. But I do feel that the film really does leave the door open to anybody who is already contaminated with any kind of anti-Semitic bias. They're going to see things in this movie that are going to feed that bias.

MACVICAR: People have suggested that, as you have suggested, that if someone is open to anti-Semitic ideas, that this could even lead to violence. And I have to ask the question, how can, in your view, how can a film, which is a movie, which is an artist's vision of an historical event which took place, how could a film have so much influence?

STERRITT: I doubt very much if this movie or any movie by itself could do the kind of thing that you just described. I don't think anybody is going to walk in -- any sane person is going to walk into "The Passion of the Christ" and walk out filled with violent urges that he or she had not had before.

Again, it may encourage those urges, it may feed those urges if they are already there, but I don't think the movie is going to inspire violence in and of itself.

When I say that, though, I'm speaking of places like the United States and England, where there certainly is anti-Semitism and there certainly are ethnic and racial tensions of various kinds, but it's not at a sort of fever pitch. It's another question when you start thinking about the fact that this movie is going to go all over the world.

MACVICAR: The last question I have to ask you is, what's the responsibility of the filmmaker? Has Mel Gibson, as the director of this movie, as the man who brought this movie to the screen, has he lived up to his responsibility, not as an artist, but to other peoples?

STERRITT: I'm sure that Gibson feels that he's fulfilled his obligation to himself and to his God. Whether he's fulfilled the obligation that a moviemaker, because movies are a popular art, whether he's filled that obligation is a very different question, because he knows that this movie is made with all the resources of modern cinema, all of the special effects and the things that you can do to manipulate audiences, and he knows that it's going to be circulated and marketed around the world.

But I really wonder if Gibson has taken into account what's going to happen when this movie starts going out into other parts of the world. And if he has taken that into account, I really have to wonder what his deepest, innermost thoughts might be about the kinds of effects this movie could have.

MACVICAR: Well, David, I fear that you and I may have helped Mr. Gibson sell a few more tickets at the box office. Thank you very much.

STERRITT: It's inevitable.

MACVICAR: David Sterritt, film critic at the "Christian Science Monitor," thank you very much.

Time for a quick break. When we come back, the pre-war rallying cry that could be a case of crying wolf. We'll talk about Saddam's most horrific execution methods and whether indeed they existed.

Don't go away.


MACVICAR: No one in the Western media disputes that Saddam Hussein was an evil man, but still many in media circles question the legitimacy of the war in Iraq and ask how much the press may have been manipulated to provide popular justification for the war.

One such story is that of the so-called people shredder, a story that appeared just days before the war. It alleged Saddam's executioners were grinding human victims in massive shredding machines. But one journalist here in Britain is questioning whether that shredder in fact existed or whether it, like many other prewar claims, was just part of the propaganda.

Joining me now here in the studio, Brendan O'Neill. Brendan filed the story in question for the "Spectator." And Melanie Phillips, columnist for the "Daily Mail."

Melanie, you were one of those journalists who reported on this human shredder. What persuaded you at the time that it was true?

MELANIE PHILLIPS, "DAILY MAIL": I'm afraid I didn't report on the human shredder at all. I merely commented on the general perception of Saddam being a tyrant and referred to what had been said in parliament by one of our members of parliament, that Saddam had been in the habit of feeding certain of his victims who had met with his disapproval feet first into a human shredder, and the MP brought this example forward. She was someone who had spent a lot of time in Iraq, had spoken to a lot of people in Iraq and had done a lot of work in Iraq, and she brought this forward as one of many examples of his barbarity.

MACVICAR: But she was also an advocate in that she headed a campaign that had been running for a number of years called Indict, which was designed to try to bring Saddam Hussein and his fellow regime members to justice.

PHILIPS: Indeed, and the reason she was trying to do that was precisely because she had amassed evidence of his barbaric behavior, evidence which in general corresponded to what others had testified.

MACVICAR: Brendan, why did you choose to examine that particular claim, this question where, as Melanie has said, she reported it because it was spoken about by a member of the House of Commons. There were other people who did report it as straight-up evidence of Saddam, the barbarity of his regime.

Why do you focus on that?

BRENDAN O'NEILL, "SPECTATOR": I focused on that because -- I have to first say I think Melanie is being a little disingenuous, because although Melanie did not report about it, she did mention it specifically as a prime example of Saddam's evil and said this is the evil that some people are refusing to fight.

Other people -- Andrew Sullivan and other journalists -- mentioned it more prominently than Melanie did, but in the same tone. Look, this is how bad he is, and yet there are people who won't back the war. So there were a number of people who used it specifically to say in the days before the war and the days just after the war started, to say Saddam is this bad, how could you possibly oppose the war. So it was used very much in that tone.

So to me, it was an interesting story to take apart because it came to the fore just three days before the war started and was promoted quite widely among sectors of the media, so for me it was a very good story to take apart and to ask why has this come up now, how is it being used and is it true. And from my investigations, as far as I can tell, there is no evidence. There is no compelling evidence that it is true.

So this unproven evidence-like story was used by lots of pro-war commentators to put the case for the war.

MACVICAR: Well, this is surely a difficult situation, Melanie, where you have here the word of a member of the House of Commons who was, as we discussed, an advocate for a certain cause. What obligation do you think resides on us, members of this business, to do due diligence? Do we just accept the word of people like that?

PHILLIPS: Well, clearly, one has to be skeptical, especially in a time of war, especially with a lot of intelligence material floating around, we don't know what to believe.

But I must correct one point that Brendan has implied, at least, although I did indeed refer in passing to this particular piece of evidence, that was in my view no way a justification for the war. I have never argued that Saddam's tyranny to his own people was justification for the war. My arguments about the war are quite separate.

And I think that there comes a point when one has to say what is your evidence. The fact though is no evidence that anyone here has seen should not invalidate what people are saying who have been to a place and seen things. If there is evidence to challenge that, fair enough, but just because we haven't seen it doesn't mean it doesn't exist, and I think this is one of the great fallacies that's arisen in the wake of the fantastically -- in this country -- fantastic popular opposition to the war taking place at all, that people have gone to enormous lengths to say that because there is an absence of evidence, it's evidence of absence. In other words, because nothing has been found or nothing has been seen with our own eyes, it doesn't exist.

Now, it may not exist. Maybe this shredder was an invention. I don't know. I wasn't there. But unless I have good reason to challenge the view of somebody who was there, then I have no reason to doubt that.

MACVICAR: But we're now nearly a year after the war. The Americans are in control of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and either the Americans or coalition forces are in control of every single palace and facility linked to the regime. And I am of the view that if they had found a human shredder, or for that matter weapons of mass destruction, we would all know it by now.

PHILLIPS: I don't think that's necessarily the case. Iraq is an enormous country. It is in a state of complete chaos still -- not complete chaos, but considerable chaos. And a very great deal of effort is being directed to trying to bring order out of that chaos.

David Kay, of the Iraq survey group, he was looking for weapons of mass destruction, not human shredders, but he resigned because not enough resources were being diverted from trying to sort out of the chaos to discovering weapons of mass destruction.

So I don't think it follows that because nothing has been found yet it doesn't actually exist. And this was a regime which went to enormous lengths to conceal what it was doing.

O'NEILL: I think that's an element of defensiveness in the pro-war camp, which I think is an interesting development here.

It strikes me that those who support the war have a very defensive way of putting their argument, and I think Melanie kind of sums that up a little bit, and I think that's where the shredder story came from.

You know, the idea that you would need to embellish something on top of Saddam's regime, we know it's a bad regime. We know Saddam is a bad man. The idea that you would need something more, that kind of -- he's worse than even you think. He's a Hitler. I mean, the same thing with the weapons. It's this very kind of technical -- he didn't subscribe to this resolution or that resolution. It's a very technical justification for war, and it strikes me that part of what I wanted to do in asking about the shredder was to demystify these processes and kind of push away all that rubbish about the unsubstantiated stories and the evidence and to get to the heart of the discussion, which is was it right to go to war in Iraq.

MACVICAR: Melanie Phillips, columnist for the "Daily Mail," and Brendan O'Neill, of the "Spectator," thank you both very much for joining me.

Coming up on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, the British government says journalists who cover the war in Iraq should be awarded a medal, but not for their journalism. Find out more when we come back.


MACVICAR: Welcome back.

The British minister of defense says journalists who were embedded with British troops during the war in Iraq will qualify for medals. These medals will recognize their service during the conflict. But many argue members of the media should not accept them.

I'm joined now by one journalist who refuses to accept her medal, the "Guardian's" Audrey Gillan. Audrey was embedded with the Household Cavalry in the Iraqi desert.

You were there, you were there for five weeks and an awful lot of soldiers. Why not take this medal?

AUDREY GILLAN, "GUARDIAN": Because I'm a journalist. I'm not a soldier. I was there to report on a conflict as an independent witness. I was not part of the fighting force that was there. The fighting force deserved the medals, deserved to take the medals. But I don't believe that journalists should become an annex to the fighting force. We should maintain our independence.

MACVICAR: What does it say to you, do you think, by the British government making this gesture? Do you think that the government has sort of, if you will, lost the plot and fails to understand that notion of independence?

GILLAN: Well, I'm not sure. You could argue too that historically they have given campaign medals to journalists and in the last Gulf War they did give those medals, and journalists felt that they were entitled to take them at that time.

I think this time around -- well, first of all I don't think I would have taken them the last time around because I do maintain that we're not part of the fighting force. This time around, journalists also feel that, you know, the war -- the reasons for going to war have not yet been proved to be right, to be true. In fact, we still don't know whether weapons of mass destruction actually are there. And if feels to us as if the government is asking us to come alongside, to take this medal and to say everything's OK.

MACVICAR: There is also a question, you know -- ITN is in the terrible situation -- is just one news organization in Britain which lost Terry Lloyd and still is missing two others, Fred Nerac and Hussein Osman. If the British government is prepared to award medals to those like you, who were embedded with their forces, then what does that say to the families of those like Terry Lloyd, who were equally brave in doing their jobs and covering this war?

GILLAN: Well, exactly. And that's the point. These people were also independent witnesses. There was no difference between what we did in terms of our job. One side had the protection of the military and gave up certain elements of their independence, and it seems as if by rewarding the medal to the people who actually took some protection from the military, you're punishing those who upheld their own independence, and to go along with that is just, in my personal opinion, wrong.

MACVICAR: Let me ask you, if there were to be a future situation where again the British military offered positions for embeds, do you think you'd take one?

GILLAN: I would prefer not to. I would prefer to go unilateral. However, I would.


GILLAN: I would prefer to go unilateral? Because there are certain circumstances that you just don't have control. I mean, I was living in a tank for five weeks. I couldn't say, "Stop here, I want to go and interview this Iraqi." Or, you know, "Please, can we do this." You don't have that type of control, and the next time, I would like to have that control.

However, there were certain benefits from being imbedded in the sense that, you know, I was with a frontline reconnaissance regiment.

MACVICAR: A great story.

GILLAN: I got much further forward than I would have otherwise. So there are pros and cons with either side. So if you're asking me, yes, I would embed again, but I would prefer not to, and I think that taking a medal is sort of like saying embedding is great, and I don't think that it is necessarily great.

MACVICAR: Audrey Gillan, of the "Guardian," thank you very much for joining me to talk about it.

GILLAN: Thank you very much, too.

MACVICAR: SKY NEWS took the prize for innovation at the United Kingdom's leading award ceremony this past week. The Royal Television society honored the channel's reconstructions of the Hutton Inquiry and the Soham murder trial.

Creatively using technology, they were able to provide near instant onscreen coverage of the evidence, a very imaginative solution, said the award's judges, to the enduring problem of covering judicial proceedings where cameras are banned.

We're now joined here in the studio by Simon Bucks, managing editor of SKY NEWS.

Simon, talk me through this. There was basically a number of technologies and techniques employed. First, the Hutton Inquiry.

SIMON BUCKS, SKY NEWS: Sure. For the Hutton Inquiry, we decided that -- and originally we'd asked to put cameras in the Hutton Inquiry, and the judge decided against it. So we were looking for another way of illustrating it. We knew it was going to be a very difficult thing for viewers to get their heads around. It was always going to be quite dense.

So we looked for a way of making it more interesting, more accessible, for viewers, and what we decided to do was basically mount a dramatic reconstruction every night.


MACVICAR: Using actors.

BUCKS: . using actors. And we did it on a minimalist set, and used the real transcripts that came out of the court hearing every day.

MACVICAR: And of course you edited those transcripts so the viewers saw a half-hour a night.

BUCKS: Absolutely. We boiled it down to the most interesting bits.

MACVICAR: Now the real technological innovation was in the way in which you decided to cover the Soham trial, this murder trial of these two young girls. And we've got a clip. Perhaps we could just take a look at this very briefly.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So you had a chat with Kev (ph), did you, on the 7th of August -- Mr. Huntley?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And when you said to him that you hoped everything turns out OK, turns out OK for whom?


MACVICAR: Talk me through the process of how you came to using this - - in addition we should also add that you were publishing nearly simultaneously on your Web site at transcript as it was emerging from the courtroom.

Talk us through this decision, this process that you came to, realizing what and how you should do it.

BUCKS: OK. As you said, there were two things. After the experience of doing the Hutton Inquiry, we looked at the idea of doing a real criminal trial in the same way, but we decided that there were real legal problems using actors to reconstruct a trial. It was always going to be tricky, and our lawyers advised us we couldn't do it.

So we had to come up with another way of doing it, and what we decided to do was to do it with 3-dimensional graphics in which we would build a 3- dimensional virtual courtroom and we had models of all the key player -- the defendants the judge, the counsel, the prosecution and the defense.

We used the transcripts from the trial, but instead of using actors this time, we used journalists, and this for us was reportage. So it was a reconstruction, but it wasn't a dramatic reconstruction.

MACVICAR: Did your lawyers every feel that you were walking close to the edge in what a judge or courts would or would not accept?

BUCKS: Well, this is cutting edge stuff, so we weren't sure what the judge was going to say about it, but we decided to err on the side of caution, because the last thing any journalist wants to do is to cause a trial to collapse because you in some way prejudiced it.

So we were pretty confident on the basis of what our lawyer told us that we would be OK.

MACVICAR: Just very quickly, the question of reconstruction is something that is not accepted in the American media. It is something that is incredibly controversial. Do you think through your experience what SKY was able to do, particularly with Soham, that we are going to see more reconstructions?

BUCKS: I think that what's going on in this country at the moment is quite interesting. There is a move to get cameras in court. Little by little it's happening in this country. Of course, in the states there is a little bit of a backlash to it, as I understand it.

So it may be that it will take longer to get cameras into court in this country than we had hoped, but I think once you get cameras in court, you're not going to need these imaginative solutions to covering court cases. But in the meantime, yes, I think we're going to have to go on doing it.

MACVICAR: Simon, thank you very much, and congratulations. Thank you for joining me.

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, in London. Thanks for joining us.



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