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Analysis of Media Coverage of Johnson's Beheading; Euro 2004 and the Rising Popularity of Soccer

Aired June 19, 2004 - 21:00:00   ET


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello. I'm Nic Robertson in London. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
It's pictures like these that are becoming all too familiar: American employee Paul Johnson bound up and blindfolded after being taken hostage in Saudi Arabia.

Like others before it, this video first appeared on an Islamic Web site, then picked up by the mainstream media. But while it may be in the public interest to view these grisly pictures, are the media themselves playing into the terrorists' hands?

I'm joined now in the studio here by Jason Burke, journalist with "The Observer" newspaper and author of the book "Al Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror," and Roger Mosey, the head of BBC television news.

Roger, let me ask you first, a lot of what's coming across and being picked up is images, graphic, disturbing images, on the Internet. Are we in the television media getting the job right?

ROGER MOSEY, BBC: I think it's terribly dangerous area, and I think we have to recognize that these pictures are available and are distributed worldwide and, therefore, it's very hard for any individual broadcaster to say they will show none of these kind of pictures. You really would have to stop every other broadcaster, every other newspaper, the Internet, all from showing those pictures.

Having said that, I think what you try to avoid is anything that's uniquely or particularly distressing about this. So, I think we'll sometimes show the facts of the case, that someone has been kidnapped. We won't show people in situations where they're particularly stressed or where particularly unpleasant things are being threatened or, worse case, are happening.

ROBERTSON: Jason, do you feel there's pressure as well, when the story is out there about some of these groups or radicals, that you really have to follow it, you really have to go and give some detail on it, and put it in the public eye the same way, which is playing into the hands of some of these groups?

JASON BURKE, AUTHOR: There's certainly the pressure. There's bound to be the pressure, certainly in print media, once television are leading, we have to follow. Otherwise, we just look very odd. We don't have the images, so much now of news is image-lead. We have to have those pictures there.

But you can contextualize the pictures. No images work alone. And to my mind, it's better to have images, even grisly images, presented in an authoritative way, with analysis around it that gives them some context, that explains the situation, explains who's behind this attack, explains perhaps the reaction of people to that attack, which often the print media can do in a way that is more valuable than the TV media because we have that much more space and time.

That way, you put the instant in its context. You're not propagandizing, you're not playing into the hand of the terrorist.

ROBERTSON: Do you think the audience gets that? I mean, my impression, Roger, is that the audience looks at this and it's horrified by the images and they perhaps don't get all the detail that we, as journalists, want to deliver to them around this.

MOSEY: Yes, I think it's important the way he puts it in running order. I think you could create a kind of hostage crisis almost every day by putting these things at top of bulletins and dwelling on them hugely.

I think what you have to do is make sure there is, as Jason says, a wider context, both in reporting the big picture of what's happening in a particular region, but also making it clear that you can't have whole societies held hostage, literally, by the fact that some people are willing to exploit and in the worst case kill individuals.

So, context in reporting is really important. I think also making it clear to people that you can't allow an individual instant, however horrific, to completely dominate the news agenda for day and days, because that, I think, does do the terrorist's work for them.

ROBERTSON: Do you think the nature of the change in the broadcast industry, that is 20 years ago there might have been a lot of state broadcasters, where there perhaps would have been a government voice involved in decision making. Now, it's a much more competitive environment. Is that competitive business-driven environment in the broadcast media playing into terrorist's hands?

MOSEY: Well, I think you have to recognize the explosion of media has been a fantastically good thing. I think, you know, it's impossible now to censor, for the most part. People have got free information. The Internet has been a great boon, and it's fantastic. We have, you know, global channels and 24-hour news channels like this one.

However, within that you have to recognize that it does certainly at times compound and amplify images in a way that is distressing. I think it is up to the individual broadcasters to take responsibility for what they're broadcaster and hope that that sense of responsibility is widespread.

The sad thing is, though, that there always will be some broadcasters or some newspapers who will go a bit too far and I think, you know, the ethics of journalism, I hope, kind of bring that back into something which, you know does recognize that society has interests as well.

ROBERTSON: What we're seeing this week in newspapers as well, Jason, Abid al-Aziz al-Muqran, who's sort of thrusting himself onto the world stage -- trying, apparently, to perhaps set himself up as the next Osama bin Laden in Saudi Arabia -- is being written about widely in the papers. He clearly is targeting the media to promote himself.

BURKE: Well, the best example of a terrorist who's targeted the media is Osama bin Laden, who is one of the best media manipulators that we've seen as a political revolutionary or a militant Islamist activist, whatever you want to call him, for many, many decades. I mean, he simply has a fantastic talent for pressing the right buttons and in a sense the media has played into this kind of myth-making.

We do like our hate figures. We do like to boil down complex problems, such as modern Islamic militancy, which has a whole profound, complex series of roots, into one person and their activities. It allows us a label. It allows us a target. It allows us to condense things into an easy, transmittable package, something that can be communicated fast, in an easy fashion. That's wrong and it feeds into policy.

Again, though, if it can be done in a way that has context, we don't need to play the game of the terrorists. We don't need to say all the time that this is the man who is responsible. We can make the point that he is among many and that the problems are more profound and more complex. It doesn't have to be quite as straight forward as is often the case.

ROBERTSON: Do you think, Roger, that the terrorists play into that simplicity? They've almost sort of watched us and studied and know how long the pictures have to be. They know -- and I don't like to say this, but there's been beheadings, and they know that those things won't play, so they'll give a few days perhaps of some hostage crisis with some pictures that will play, to draw attention. Are they playing smarter than perhaps the journalists are?

MOSEY: I think sometimes. I think, though, that the people represented here in CNN and the BBC and "The Observer" are actually people who do give context and do explain things that are going on.

I suspect that what is corrosive on the journalist's side is the kind of tabloid agenda, which simply puts it, as Jason is saying, in terms of good and evil, and there's almost no background or information about it. I think that kind of black and white simplicity in these cases can be really unhelpful. I mean, it really is all about context and background, explaining and understanding. And I think what you have to hope the media can do is make the dialogue between peoples that much more informed and that way you hope that you cut away the kind of ill-informed prejudice which leads to terrorism.

ROBERTSON: I thing that's all we have time for. Roger, thank you very much. Jason, too. Thank you both for your insights.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, inundated with calls and cries for help. The story of one Iraqi broadcaster and what she's come to mean to her listeners.

Stay with us.


ROBERTSON: Welcome back.

Her listeners call her an Iraq (UNINTELLIGIBLE), the voice of Iraq. Two generations of Iraqis have grown to love broadcaster Amel al-Mudarress. But now as they approach the handover of political power to an interim Iraqi government, they need her soothing tone more than ever.

CNN's Christiane Amanpour listening in on Iraqi people's hopes and fears as they call in from all over the country.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Amel al- Mudarress is about as close as you can get to the pulse of the Iraqi people.

"Good morning from your family at Studio 10," she says. "We are your link to your ministers."

One day after the latest car bomb that killed 13 and wounded scores more, security is again topic number one for her listeners. A policeman calls in from Baghdad with a torrent of complaints.

"We need more police cars. Our flak jackets are useless. And we have only AK47s and pistols against an enemy who uses grenades."

Another caller from Ramadi, in the infamous Sunni Triangle, sounds frantic.

"We need checkpoints and car searches," he says. "It would make people feel safer. Right now, there's no deterrents."

Amel and her co-anchor, Alaa Muhsein, field these comments and complaints for 90 minutes every morning.

Amel has been a broadcaster for 42 years. She tells us how she was harassed by intelligence agents after her sister-in-law was caught insulting Saddam Hussein several years ago. She was then executed.

So, you'd expect Amel to be happy about today's Iraq. Instead, after thanking the United States for removing Saddam, she dissolves into tears.

"Iraqis just want to live in peace, especially we women," she says. "We fear for our children. When my son leaves the house every morning, I don't know if he'll come home again."

Like much in Iraq, this station has also been targeted.

(on camera): Terrorists and insurgents have so far killed eight of the networks employees and wounded more than 15 in ambushes and execution- style shootings, so a private U.S. contractor is trying to train at least 1,000 Iraqi security agents for its 31 sites around the country.

(voice-over): If violence is the callers' main concern, then jobs and electricity are a close second.

Um Baqr, a mother in Baghdad, calls almost in tears saying she fears for the life of her six month old child because of major power and water cuts. The price of generators has skyrocketed and she can't afford one.

Amel's listeners say just hearing her voice makes them feel better, but by the end of each morning, she is overwhelmed.

"Iraq is now living in a fog," she says. "We don't know what will happen next. We just hear words and promises, but so far those promises have not materialized."

"We hope for July 1, when a new government takes over. They say Iraqis are patient people," she tells her listeners. "We've been patient all this time. God willing, things will get better."



ROBERTSON: Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, from the back page to the front page, critics complain the media are making their beautiful game ugly.

Don't go away.



Love it or hate it, you just can't escape it. Euro 2004 is everywhere on our screens, in our newspapers, and if you're not watching the game itself, there's always the stories about hooliganism and the behavior of these celebrity star players.

While few can deny the international love of the game, critics complain the media are making the beautiful game ugly. So, are the press taking their eye off the ball?

Joining me here in the studio: Will Buckley, sports journalist and author of the book "The Man Who Hated Football"; Camilla Cavendish, columnist with the "Times of London"; and John Fashanu, former England footballer.

Will, let me start with you. You've been reporting football let me say forever, almost.

WILL BUCKLEY, AUTHOR: Fifteen years. Seems like forever.

ROBERTSON: Why is it so big now?

BUCKLEY: I guess a number of reasons it happened. First of all, the games became safer to go to because of cameras there and everything like that. Once it was safe to go to, the middle classes came back to watching it. Once the middle classes started going, they started buying the merchandising. SKY became involved, and before we knew it, it was suddenly fashionable to like football.

In the `80s, football was anathema. People would get up from the dinner table (UNINTELLIGIBLE). But now, how many dinner parties are ruined by people banging on and on about the Neville problem or who should play left bat for England or any other meaningless thing, really.

ROBERTSON: Is that right, Camilla? Do people love it that much?

CAMILLA CAVENDISH, "TIMES OF LONDON": Well, it's more than a fashion; it's become a religion. And it's actually heretical to dislike football. And a lot of women find themselves completely left out. People look as if we've landed on Mars when we ask, you know, who's (UNINTELLIGIBLE), you know, did England beat Switzerland?

It's actually become an intolerable pressure to conform.

ROBERTSON: John, you've been a player. You've seen this issue from both sides. Are you some kind of God, some kind of religious symbol here?

JOHN FASHANU, FMR. ATHLETE: Certainly the profile of football has just exploded. But, I'm not sure what Will said. I mean, he must be a minority of about five people in the world who don't like football. I must say, there are a lot of ladies out there who love the game of football. People like Dave Beckham have made -- yes, football is like Gods. I'm afraid so. Yes.

CAVENDISH: There was a "Sun" poll last year that found that actually two-thirds of people said they either don't watch football at all or they don't watch it very much, so the media is telling us that football is a national obsession, but it's not.

BUCKLEY: And it's a media-led thing. I don't like the game of football. The game of football itself is perfectly good. I dislike the way it's covered. It's just bloated now. It's become.


BUCKLEY: The media are bloating it. The media always say, oh, but we're giving readers what they want. I don't know if readers do want 50 pages on England beat Switzerland.

ROBERTSON: John, what is bloating it? I mean, the media, but what's behind the media?

FASHANU: It's supply and demand. It's supply and demand. Viewing figures are up. The crowds are up, all time records. Everybody. Your husband loves football. Your husband doesn't love football?

CAVENDISH: He's unusual.

FASHANU: It's very unusual.


FASHANU: That's very, very abnormal, I must say. Children everywhere. Everybody is being encouraged to play football.

BUCKLEY: But, John, it is a childish game and it is mainly for children and one should take a childish delight in it.

What is worrying is the amount of men in their mid-40's whose whole behavior for the next week is determined by events over which they have no control. They will come into the office on Monday morning and go, "Don't talk to me after what happened yesterday. Just don't talk to me." OK. And you think, what, death in the family? No. (UNINTELLIGIBLE). I mean, honestly, what is going on.

ROBERTSON: I travel the world. I got to some pretty strange places, Afghanistan. And you go to Afghanistan, you go to Kabul, go to any of the towns around the country, talk to the kids and they want to talk to you about, "You come from England? Manchester United!" That's what they want to hear about.

So, it's business?

BUCKLEY: I think a lot of it is business behind it. I think the people making money out of football are the shoe manufacturers, the shoe business. And they feed the media. They don't allow you to talk to these footballers unless you mention their product, and the whole thing, who is making money out of football, from this national obsession, this sort of placebo for the masses?

FASHANU: Yes, he's quite right there.

But if you look at America, the game football has exploded. Who by? The women. There are more women in America that are playing football then men.

ROBERTSON: Some might argue that's marketing as well, just aiming it at another part of the community. A lot of people involved in America football would argue that you're just aiming at girls because they're not specifically doing too much.


CAVENDISH: Marketing is one thing, you know, but actually this sort of religion has permeated right to the top.

If you remember, Tony Blair got into terrible trouble when he claimed that he had seen Jackie Milburn play at Newcastle and it turned out that he was far too young to have seen the game. This is the prime minister, who feels he needs to lie about having seen a football game to look cool. I mean, this is absurd.

ROBERTSON: But are we missing real stories? I mean, politics? That story in itself is diverting away from the politics of the prime minister. But on other stories. We put the hooliganism like, say, on the front page.

BUCKLEY: But in the build up to this tournament, you know more about the state of John Terry's hamstring than the entire events on the continent of Africa. There will be two pages of John Terry and maybe world news will get half a page, and that's absurd.


FASHANU: If people didn't want to read it, the press wouldn't write about it.

CAVENDISH: But the tabloids are targeting a relatively small market. I mean, celebrities and sports sell newspapers. We all know that. But it's a relatively small market of people.

FASHANU: There's only two common denominators in the world: sports and music. And if you can use that vehicle of sport, in this case football, to do so many things, wonderful things, to create peace, to create awareness. You can use it for so many things.

ROBERTSON: Aren't we missing -- aren't we not telling people about all the issues, let's say, in Africa, the AIDS problem in Africa, if we put -- we've missed the opportunity to inform people, don't we, about some very serious issues, if we cover the paper with football.

FASHANU: Yes, certainly. But what I'm saying is, wrap the football around those issues and a lot more people will understand them. If you go out there and you stand in Rwanda and you shout about AIDS, very few people will turn up. But if I go to Rwanda and I stand there with two or three footballs and I juggle them, I assure you I'll have the whole village there. Then I can give my speech and tell them what I think is going on.

BUCKLEY: So, you're a prophet for this new religion? You see, what worries me about it -- if it is a religion, which has been blithely asserted, it must be one of the few where the creed is the rich get richer and the meek go to the wall. It's an incredibly materialistic religion and lacking any sort of faith or anything -- there's nothing (UNINTELLIGIBLE) of football. It's just a game.

FASHANU: It's more than just a game now. It is more than just a game. You'll see some of the hooligans who are being arrested. They're not young boys. They're 47 and 50.

ROBERTSON: Camilla, is the hooligan issue being overplayed? I mean, we see it on the front page, but yet we're told it's only a handful of people.

CAVENDISH: I think there's a danger that the hooligans are being glorified, and there is a very clear strain that's been in this country for many years -- there's a certain glorification. The whole two World Wars and one World Cup thing, which is completely acceptable here. There's a huge streak of xenophobia which football brings out, which is really deeply unpleasant.

ROBERTSON: That brings up another thing. We see the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) now being used in this country to sort of draw people to football. That wasn't around in the numbers a few years ago. There are some people who really worry about the sort of nationalism aspect of that and some of the hidden undertones behind that -- John.

FASHANU: Well, that's what we're breaking into now. That's exactly what we're finding out. Are these people football fans or are they just organized thugs who want a good night out to have basically a good punch up? Some of them, most of them, are people I think who just want to have a good punch up.

BUCKLEY: And also, there is behind it, which is rather worrying, a triumphalism. There always used to be that thing about games, particularly when the English were playing games. If you won, you did so with grace. You didn't say, having won, "I'm the best, I'm the best." You went, "Oh, I thought you were awfully unlucky," blah, blah, blah, so the person would play with you again.


BUCKLEY: Cricket. What's wrong with cricket? I love cricket.


ROBERTSON: That's playing to the cameras, though.

FASHANU: But that's what it's all about. We are entertainers. We're entertainers for the cameras.

And as Will said earlier, the game has got bigger now because it's safe for women and children to go to the football matches, where we have to sit down now so we cant have that hooligan element which will stand up and now start screaming and shouting. You can't do that in football anymore.

CAVENDISH: I'm not sure it's terribly safe in Portugal, if you're actually -- some of the people who have been arrested, I mean, there was a son of a (UNINTELLIGIBLE). There are all sorts of people who have a much sort of higher educational background than we think of.

Maybe there's a win-win here, which is we get David Beckham to actually go to Brussels and sort out the EU Constitution, which is probably a much more important issue this weekend, which as you pointed out, will be wiped off the face of this earth.

ROBERTSON: It would certainly attract a lot of attention, I'm sure. But let's be realistic here, that's not going to happen.

So where is the game going to go, Will? Is it just going to get bigger? Is the bubble going to burst here at some point?

BUCKLEY: I think all bubbles must burst, and I think football will be undone by the fact that in this country it's so inherently capitalist, whereas American sport, for instance, even the Americans democratize their sport by having a draft system and everything like that, so the weaker teams get the better players and that maintains interest.

As the gulf between rich and poor, which has reached beyond (UNINTELLIGIBLE) levels now with (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and Man United and the rest, with the focus only on them because the shoe business people only want you to talk about them because they're players are plugging their product, you will find such a big gulf that I hope it implodes dramatically and overnight, like the Internet (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

ROBERTSON: What a note to leave it on, but I'm afraid we've got to wrap it up there. Will, Camilla, John, thank you very, very much for taking the time to talk to us.

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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