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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired May 22, 2004 - 19:30:00   ET


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Nic Robertson, in London.
Welcome to INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media covers the big stories of the moment.

We begin with a plot worthy of a Hollywood or Bholi-wood (ph) blockbuster. Few could have predicted the twists and turns of India's elections. A dynasty returns to take power and then retreats, all in the space of a week.

Sonia Gandhi and the Congress Party's electoral grab shocked the pundits, the people, the pollsters, not to mention the press.

Joining me now from Delhi is Vinod Mehta, editor-in-chief of "Outlook" magazine, and here in the studio, William Dalrymple, prolific writer and historian on India. His latest book is called "The White Mogul's Love and Betrayal in 18th Century India."

Vinod, let me start with you if I may. The elections have been described as unparalleled, a drama unfolding, yet the media, the journalists, seem to get it wrong. How wrong? What happened?

VINOD MEHTA, "OUTLOOK": Well, you know, this election was extraordinary, not just in terms of all the upsets that have happened, but this electorate of ours, which I think deserves to be acknowledged right across the world, is the most extraordinary electorate. They are mostly people who are illiterate. They're un-empowered. They're voiceless. But they have punished the rulers of this country for worrying about just 150 million people and forgetting 850 million people.

They all said the government claimed that India was shining, and Goldman Sachs said that we were going to challenge the Chinese in 2020. And this whole euphoria was built up that this country was really on the move, which was justified, but the benefits of all of this were going to a very small, tiny minority. And as I said, 850 million people were determined to punish this government, and those 850 million people didn't tell the pollsters, didn't tell the press. They just kept very, very quite and so this has been an object lesson for the media. This has been -- the credibility of the pollsters has been completely shot. And I think the politicians have also realized that the feedback that they get from their own sycophants and their own workers can be terribly, terribly wrong.

If you look at the faces of the leaders of the BJP, they are shell- shocked, stunned, traumatized. They don't know what's hit them. And if you look at the faces of the Congress Party, they don't know what's hit them too, because they were the people who least expected this kind of result.

So I think that the Indian electorate is the real winner, and the Indian democracy is the real winner, and the Indian media and Indian politicians and Indian pollsters are the big losers in the election.

ROBERTSON: William, you have a good observation platform to look at all of this. Where did the Indian media perhaps trip themselves up here? How come they overlooked this issue?

WILLIAM DALRYMPLE, AUTHOR: I think part of the reason that no one guessed Congress was going to win was that they waged such an incredibly poor campaign. I mean when people where following Sonia Gandhi along, there was no impression that this was a party on the move at all.

I remember Vinod himself wrote a diary in his magazine saying that Sonia -- as a strong Congress supporter, he felt his spirits sink when he sees her getting up on a platform with poor Hindi and so on, and yet what she said about the poor obviously rang true. We all got it wrong. I don't think anyone -- possibly "India Today" guessed, towards the end.

ROBERTSON: So when everybody rallied around and saw the writing on the wall, there seems to be a lot of sort of hype and sensationalism that came out. Why was that, do you think?

DALRYMPLE: Like every good plot, there were endless twists and turns.

First of all, the people least expected to win -- not only not to win, but the only question being asked was was Congress -- was the BJP going to get an outright majority or would it just get a small minority.

MEHTA: Well, I could -- if I may, I'd like to pitch in there.

I think this has been the dumbest election in Indian history, and I think it's been dumb because we have too many -- 24-odd news channels. We have 23, 24-odd news channels, and they sometimes need to manufacture news when there is -- after all, there is only one story. So you hype up the story. You try and create drama where no drama exists.

I know of a situation where a very good, very famous news anchor had two people to interview. One of them didn't turn up, so he interviewed an empty chair.

ROBERTSON: So you seem to be saying that the journalists here have acted incredibly irresponsibly.

MEHTA: Well, I would say it was not just irresponsible, but the fact is that the electronic media in India has gone berserk. There are too many news channels chasing too few viewers and because there are so many news channels and there is so much competition among them, they need to create news, they need to create drama, they need to create hype, they need to sensationalize simply to survive.

DALRYMPLE: I think one thing that's happened also is that following this election result, everyone has come up with the same explanation, which I'm sure is largely true, that it is the poor punishing the rich, that it is the rural masses taking on the tiny proportion of urban rich who have been benefiting from liberalization and the growth of the economy.

But I think there's a second story which hasn't really been reported so much, which is a simple, old fashioned, anti-incumbency vote. BJP did increase their share of the vote in some places, such as Rajasthan (ph), where you've had Congress in charge. And what you've seen across India is not just BJP losing power to the Congress, but a simple turnaround of everyone throwing out whoever's been in power.

ROBERTSON: Vinod, a simple protest vote, then, or more than that as well?

MEHTA: Well, I'm not sure it was entirely anti-incumbency. I think Congress this time did something they have never done. They stitched up some alliances. You know, the Congress has also been in power in India for a long time, and they don't have the mindset for alliances. They are a very arrogant party. And to have lots of alliance partners, you have to accommodate, you have to compromise.

This time, it was actually Sonia who led (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and told her party-men that we are going to fail miserably unless we stitch up some alliances. And she stitched up some very astute alliances in states like Taminlado (ph), in states like Hundra (ph), in states like Marushu (ph), and she has done extremely well.

The BJP, on the other hand, which is a very pragmatic, which is a very smart party, perhaps over-smart party sometimes, they actually broke with some of their trusted alliance partners, and they have fared very badly with their new alliance partners.

ROBERTSON: William, what do you think is going to happen to the BJP here, the Hindu Nationalist Party? They have quite a broad section of thoughts ranging for centrists to quite right wing. Are they going to fall apart? What's going to happen to them?

DALRYMPLE: I thing the most worrying reaction to the election was for the RSS and the VHP, the two most extreme far right (UNINTELLIGIBLE) organizations. And within hours of the Congress result, they were saying the reason the BJP lost this election was they didn't play the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) card. They went all moderate. They went all liberal. And look, this is what's happening.

So I think the worst possible thing that could happen now is that the moderates in the BJP, who by and large have been the dominant figures, Vajpayee, (UNINTELLIGIBLE), that they will lose their moral authority to some of the nut-cases who are barking at the fringes.

ROBERTSON: Vinod Mehta, William Dalrymple, thank you both very much for joining me.

Coming up after the break, more sordid reports of prisoner abuse in Iraq, but this time it's three journalists making the allegations.

Stay with us.



It's the story that won't go away. The shocking pictures of abuse from Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq, and now there's more.

On Friday, the "Washington Post" released further photos as well as video of alleged abuse from the same prison in Iraq.

Separately this week three Iraqis working for the Reuters news agency have come forward with their story. They claim they were also abused. The two cameramen and one driver were detained in a U.S. military camp in January, they say.

Joining me now, from New York, is Reuters news editor Paul Holmes. We did invite the Pentagon to this show but they declined.

Paul, tell us what happened to your staff and what reaction you've had from the Pentagon so far.

PAUL HOLMES, REUTERS: Well, our staff, Nic, and a cameraman, an Iraqi cameraman for NBC, were filming in Fallujah on January 2 and their helicopter was shot down. They went as close as they could to the scene of the downing and American troops say they were fired on and then detained these four Iraqis.

They were taken to a base of the 82nd Airborne Division and held for three days, even though we had within hours of their detention advised the 82nd and the Pentagon that they were bona fide journalists working for us.

When they came out of detention, they gave us lengthy, detailed and graphic testimony of the abuses they say they suffered. This included sleep deprivation, it included being hit and slapped and kicked. And in two of the cases it included allegations that they had been made to sodomize themselves and then lick their finger.

A third Reuters staffer, a cameraman from Baghdad who was one of the three detained, said he was told by soldiers, whispered in his ear, that they wanted to have sex with him and that they wanted to bring his wife in and show her as well.

We reported the basics of the abuse back in January, but these Iraqi staff felt so degraded and humiliated that they asked that the details not be made public. Since then, we have had exhaustive and lengthy correspondence and contact with the Pentagon and with the military, really to no avail.

They concluded in an internal investigation that no abuse had occurred, yet at the same time they didn't interview the Iraqi staff of ours who made these allegations. And it reached the stage this week following the release of the Abu Ghraib photographs that the Iraqis themselves felt so strongly about this that they wanted their story made public.

ROBERTSON: Why do you think you're not making any headway? Is it because you don't have photographs of the incidents?

HOLMES: That is a very good question, Nic. I mean, as you yourself know from working in Iraq, these allegations of prisoner abuse were out there long before the photos appeared in April.

The Pentagon, the 82nd, have kissed off the allegations, saying there's no evidence of abuse, yet at the same time they do acknowledge in a summary of the report that we've received that the three were subjected to sleep deprivation.

This week, General Sanchez, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that he had never authorized sleep deprivation at any detention facility in Iraq, and therefore we now feel strongly that the initial investigation was woefully inadequate and that there are serious grounds for reopening this and doing a more thorough probe.

ROBERTSON: What's the solution here, Paul? Should journalists be standing up together? As of Friday, Al Jazeera is reporting that potentially one of their employees has been killed Friday, potentially by coalition fire. They themselves have had problems getting the answers they think they deserve from the coalition for circumstances with some of their employees. Do you feel journalists aren't standing up together? What's it going to take to get the correct responses?

HOLMES: Well, I mean, we have had ourselves, Nic, two of our cameramen killed in Iraq under U.S. fire, both last year. We've pushed since then for a concerted approach by news organizations to sit down with the Pentagon, to sit down with officers in the field and work out ways to improve journalist safety.

I don't think it's in anybody's interest, least of all the U.S. military, to be accused of killing journalists, whether by accident or whatever.

ROBERTSON: What changes does this effect, the death of your two cameramen last year, the effect on your staff this year, from the abuses that they claim -- what is the effect on your staff when they go out to do their job?

HOLMES: Well, certainly Iraqi journalists who work for major news organizations like us do feel somewhat at risk when they come across U.S. forces.

I'd like to point out that when our staff were detained in January, General Kimmet (ph) stood up a news conference and said enemy personnel posing as media workers had fired on U.S. troops. That, I would say, puts all journalists in Iraq at potential risk. It makes them perceived in the eyes of soldiers as potentially hostile.

We've pushed repeatedly since January for a retraction or a correction of that statement in the interest of all journalists and that hasn't happened. We would like to see that happen. We would like to see the military give major news organizations in Baghdad security briefings on a background basis so that we can know where troops are deployed and where the high-risk areas are. We would like better communication within the military so that different units in the field are aware when there are journalists in the area.

And we also are very ready and very willing to do what we can as journalists to make this job less dangerous within the bounds of the possible.

ROBERTSON: Paul Holmes, editor of news at Reuters, on those very poignant notes, thank you very much indeed for joining us.

Still to come on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, getting it wrong on Iraq, the journalists who are retreating on their arguments in favor of the war.

Don't go away.


ROBERTSON: Welcome back.

Admitting one is wrong is never easy. Admitting it publicly is even harder, but many newspaper columnists are doing just that over Iraq. The unraveling of the events at Abu Ghraib Prison is causing a moral dilemma for many advocates of the war.

Joining me now, Mary Ann Segert (ph), columnist with the "Times of London," and John Lloyd, editor of the "Financial Times" magazine.

Mary Ann, let me turn to you first, you, in your recent article, saying that you decided that the war wasn't a good thing. You said you were livid the moral case you've been making has been so undermined. You sound incredibly angry. Was this a sudden arrival at this decision?

MARY ANN SEGERT (ph), "TIMES OF LONDON": It was a gradual arrival, but the events add Abu Ghraib speeded it up very fast.

I had become concerned over the course of the past year, since the war ended, that none of the weapons of mass destruction that we'd been promised had been found, and I had been saying both to myself and to the numerous people I argued the justification of the war with, look, be patient. It takes a long time to find these things. Iraq is a very large country.

But I was starting to realize that actually perhaps we had been duped by the intelligence services, wittingly or unwittingly and that the weapons of mass destruction, which were, of course, the main justification for going to war, at least on this side of the Atlantic, might not actually have existed.

That coupled with the events at Abu Ghraib, which seem to tell the people in the Middle East whom we had been trying to persuade that we were a force for good, that we wanted to bring human rights and the rule of law and democracy to their countries, we seem to be telling them, look, we're going to operate on almost as bad -- I stress almost -- as bad a moral level as Saddam himself. You know, we might not electrocute the prisoners quite as badly and we might not condone it from quite the highest level, but nonetheless, here were the Americans doing just what Saddam had done himself.

ROBERTSON: Do you feel better having got this off your chest, this change of heart? Do you think your readers appreciate it?

SEGERT (ph): Well, those are two different questions.

Yes, I do feel better about it, though I don't actually believe -- I didn't write that we were wrong to go to war in the first place on the basis of the intelligence we were given. I think we probably still did take the right decision. It's just that the intelligence was probably wrong.

As for my readers, well, of course, they're a mixed bag. Some of them say, hurray, at last you realize what I've been saying all along. Others think I'm a rat for deserting, you know, what they consider to be a good cause.

ROBERTSON: John Lloyd, is she a rat for deserting a sinking cause? I mean, you still stand by your pro-war position.

JOHN LLOYD, "FINANCIAL TIMES": Yes. No. I don't think she's a rat, but I think she's wrong. I think that to equate or nearly equate Saddam Hussein's murder of hundreds of thousands of his own and neighboring people with what is of course a horror at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere is a false equivalence.

I think what the Americans did in Abu Ghraib is hideous and any civilized person would think the same. But to equate that with the rule of a tyrant over decades, where he treated his country as his own personal killing ground, I think is deeply mistaken, and I think -- where I do agree with Mary Ann Segert (ph) is that the original case to go to war, albeit founded as we now seem to know on at least wildly optimistic -- or pessimistic depending on how you read it -- intelligence, was the right thing to do.

ROBERTSON: Do you think it's wrong for people to change their minds? Would you consider changing your mind? You do seem to have some doubts now.

LLOYD: No, no. Of course it isn't wrong for people to change their minds. I'm not against people changing their minds. I've changed my mind about many things. But I think in this specific instance we cannot argue on the basis of Abu Ghraib and the revelations of American torture that it was wrong.

What I think you can argue, though I don't think we're there yet, is that given what is happening now in the country and the possible long-term inability of the Americans and the British to control the country sufficient to allow the emergence of a representative government, that we were perhaps too optimistic in assuming the Americans and British could control it. But I think we aren't there yet. I think there's quite some time to go before we are. We have to make that choice. And even that, I think, although it would obviously add a gloss to the decision and would certainly lean heavily on future decisions to intervene almost anywhere else doesn't mean to say that the original decision to go to war was wrong.

SEGERT (ph): But, John, if there were no weapons of mass destruction, had you known what you now know about weapons of mass destruction, would you still have thought it was right to invade Iraq?

LLOYD: Yes. I think so. Because my -- I take your point, but this was not the government's view. The government's view was founded on what it thought was legally possible in international law. But my view was that now that America was finally teed-up as it had not been for a decade before to get rid of what was probably the worst tyrant in the world, then we should go for it.

And so the weapons of mass destruction were another cause and I, like most people, assumed that the intelligence was correct. It wasn't the main reason for why I supported the war.

SEGERT (ph): Well, I think that's where we part company, because although I'm thrilled that Saddam has been deposed, I do believe in the importance of international law and I don't believe in illegal invasions, and I don't believe -- I think it's a pretty morally threadbare argument to say that the end justifies the means, and just because Iraq is now a place where speech is free and Saddam has gone, it was therefore right to do what we did.

LLOYD: That wasn't my argument. Nor do I think is it morally threadbare. And also I think it's legally founded, or it can be legally founded. There will be arguments between the international lawyers for sometime, but since Saddam was in breach of a number of U.N. resolutions, there is at least an argument that the United States and the United Kingdom went to war on a legally justifiable basis as there was when also the U.N. Security Council was against it in the war in Kosovo. There was also legal argument and reasonable legal argument about the grounds for it.

So morally threadbare, I would reject. And legally unfounded, there is an argument.

ROBERTSON: Mary Ann, let's go back a year-and-a-half. What would you be writing now in your comments? Would you have written anything different knowing what you know now?

SEGERT (ph): Yes. I think I would have said that while it would be great to be able to intervene and invade countries whose regimes we didn't like, it's not something that we can yet justify in international law and maybe we need to change international law, maybe we need to rewrite U.N. conventions in order to be able to topple tyrants.

But I think I would say, reluctantly, it's something that we can't do at the moment.

ROBERTSON: Mary Ann Segert (ph) and John Lloyd, thank you both very much for joining us. We're running out of time.

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 Nic Robertson. Thanks for joining us.



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