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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired September 19, 2004 - 10:30:00   ET


RICHARD QUEST, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Richard Quest, here in London.
Welcome to INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media covers the big stories of the moment.

We here much conjecture about North Korea. All the political pundits and experts are giving their views on how close the hermit kingdom is or isn't to becoming a nuclear power.

Speculation rose this week over the huge cloud of smoke spotted near the countries border with China. And without any international media present in North Korea, it's origin to some extent still remains a mystery.

ITN's John Irvine managed to get into the country and he joins us now from Bangkok with some rare insight into this rare country.

John, you got into North Korea, pardon the phrase, but on the back of a British Foreign Office minister to some extent, and in doing that, of course, you were covering his visit, but it gave you on opening, didn't it, to explore much further.


When the British Minister Bill Rammell, for the British Foreign Office, who was meeting North Korean politicians, we were shepherded away and on the most guided of tours we were shown the show piece buildings that have sprung up or did spring up in Pyongyang during the bumper years of Soviet investment during the 70s and 80s.

I have to say, the city looks particularly run down now.

QUEST: Was there any opportunity as best you could to get away from those minders? I can't say I've ever been in that situation, but I have been in cases where you are being watched all the time and you take any opportunity to escape, so to speak.

IRVINE: No. In truth we weren't really able to shake off our minders. These two guides were with us permanently. I was worried about censorship and certainly in terms of what we could see and film we were censored, but in terms of narrative, in terms of commentary we weren't censored. We were anxious that when we played our reports out to London on a satellite from North Korean TV, we were worried that the plug would be pulled because our narrative was anything but complimentary about North Korea. But, thankfully, that didn't happen.

But as I say, when it came to news gathering, we were very much controlled.

QUEST: Give our viewers a feel for that, because it's -- well, it is from a different era, isn't it, this idea of you can't film this, you can't film that. And we're not talking about military installations here or military maneuvers. We are talking about the bread and butter pictures and television -- John.

IRVINE: Yes, but remember, though, we were taken to -- we were taken to the places that they wanted us to see, these huge buildings that I say celebrate the leadership. We weren't taken to the run down areas of Pyongyang. We were taken to the top of what's called the Juche Tower and a very spirited guide told us what we were looking at. She mentioned the tribute buildings to Kim Il Sung. She didn't mention what was clearly there to see, which are dilapidated apartment blocks.

This was a Soviet block country. This is a Cold War relic. It's decaying pretty quickly. It's in dire need of investment. We spent most of our time in Pyongyang, which is home to the true believers. North Korean society politically is split into three categories: the loyal, the neutral and the hostile.

The loyal, the true believers, have the privilege of living in Pyongyang. As I say, it's a pretty run down city. The standard of living is extremely poor, and, of course, it is as good as it gets. It raises serious questions about what life is like for North Koreans who don't live in the capital.

QUEST: A final thought, John. What you got an excellent taste of, and please give us a taste of, is the difficulty and the impossibility of verifying any of the facts that come from North Korea. I'm thinking about the train blast that happened a couple of months ago, this explosion at happened just a couple of weeks ago.

The North Koreas tell us, but frankly do we stand any chance of verifying ourselves?

IRVINE: As journalists, no. Bill Rammell, the Foreign Office minister, asked the foreign minister of North Korea to make a statement to the Western media, to the British journalists that were there about the explosion. The minister said he didn't want to do that because he regarded the Western media as liars.

QUEST: Obviously, you'll go back as a journalist, John. Scale of one to ten, as a tourist, is it worth going back to have a look?

IRVINE: Well, it is unique. It is a Cold War relic. It's definitely worth seeing. It is a sinister place. It's chilling. 50 years of repression, isolation, anti-Western propaganda. The level of brainwashing, indoctrination, is truly sinister.

These people really believe that they are living the utopian existence in Pyongyang. I understand that during the numerous power cuts that occur there, North Koreans are taught to chant "Blame America."

All the problems that North Korea has, according to the North Koreans, are a product of what happens in the imperialistic West and in particular in the United States.

QUEST: Many thanks indeed.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, they go where few dare to go. They're reporting from the eye, this time of the storm. We're going to talk to the weather when we come back.


QUEST: While most people flee these extreme weather conditions, there are those reporters and cameramen who boldly venture straight into the eye of the storm, and the reason: weather disaster stories, like Hurricane Ivan, which bring tales of human interest, not to mention truly dramatic pictures.

Combine these elements with fears of global warming and you have the perfect storm, which becomes the perfect story.

Joining me now from Gulf Shores, Alabama, CNN's Gary Tuchman, and in Sheffield, England, Claire Nasir, GMTV's meteorologist.

Let's start with Gary.

The one thing I can never remember for doing these weather stories is you're going one way and everybody else is going the other.

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There's no question about that, Richard.

In this case, the major highway that leads to the north from the beach, Interstate 65, they put all the lanes in a northerly direction so people could get out. So anyone who wanted to go south couldn't go on that interstate highway.

So, yes, when we go to these hurricanes, we see every car in the world going one way and we are going to other.

QUEST: Claire, has the business of covering weather become more serious? I'm going to be rude, forgive me, but the idea of the bubble- headed weather girl really no longer exists.

CLAIRE NASIR, GMTV: I don't think it does. I think that most everyone, particularly across in Britain, are very interested in weather and the reason why is because we get such extremes of weather.

And interestingly enough, over the last five or six yours, rather than being in a studio, weather broadcasts have actually been outside.

QUEST: Gary, do you think that it has become something of a journalist macho thing to try and get as close as you can to the nastiest storm imaginable and hope nothing untoward happens?

TUCHMAN: I think there is a danger of it becoming a game. I could tell y you, over the last more than 20 years of covering hurricanes, there are a lot more reporters out who are covering them, but we have a purpose for doing this. We want to show the strength of Mother Nature. And just sometimes by showing pictures without the people in them, you can't really get a gauge of how serious it is.

We don't want it to be a circus, but we do want to show people the strength of Mother Nature. We're storytellers, and that's how we tell stories. But I will tell you, and this is something I tell even to my family, we know ways to stay safe. We make sure we're near sturdy, strong buildings that can withstand the most powerful of winds, and that's exactly what we did during this hurricane.

QUEST: You see, the interesting thing is, isn't it, because technology means that so many more people can get there. In the end, do you fear that the inexperienced will tread too far and somebody will get washed away or something dreadful will happen? And I'm talking about reporters in that sense -- Gary.

TUCHMAN: There's no question about that, Richard. We do have a concern that there are certain people who may try to get the ultimate story, who want to go one step further than the other reporters and the other photographers and could get hurt. And there's no question that's a concern, but that's a concern in a lot of stories. Iraq is a great example of that.

So there's no question that in journalism you have that concern, you have to be wise, but you also have to cover the story.

QUEST: Claire, when you're looking at a system developing, like Hurricane Frances or Charlie and these systems, do you get a flutter in your stomach as you realize -- I mean, I'm thinking of the story, the move a "The Perfect Storm," when the meteorologist realizes this is the big one.

Do you start to realize this is it?

NASIR: I actually have become slightly worried, because massive storms like we've seen recently -- we've inherited three hurricanes from the States over the last month or so. There's so much energy in them and they're notorious for getting wrong. Forecasts like that will go wrong because they are huge beasts. It will tend to rain more. The winds will be stronger and it will track further west, east, north or south.

And that's what worries me, because I'm a broadcaster. I want to be giving the right information to people so they know what to wear, they know whether to stay in or not or go out for the day. And really big depressions like this can -- forecasts can go wrong.

QUEST: Let's look at -- you had your own forecast that went slightly wrong. Gary, you haven't seen this, but let me tell you, Claire was doing a live broadcast on the side of an English seaside resort when all of a sudden a massive wave, Claire nearly washed you out.

I mean, was it a bit of irresponsibility being there in the first place?

NASIR: Well, I do get sent to places of extreme weather, and I choose to go to those places.


NASIR: Well, because the story gets told much better if we are in a place where it is raining rather than being in a warm studio and telling these people where it's at, sadly, you've got to go outside today and face the rain.

I'm actually in the rain saying, look, it's raining on me and it's awful. It's wet and windy.

But this particular time, on the eastern side of Britain, it was getting worse and worse and that was the first of many big waves which actually pushed over the seawall. That one I would say was a freak wave. It pushed me over as well as my cameraman and my soundman. I eventually did get up and I wasn't hurt at all, but after that I did go slightly further inland.

QUEST: Claire, many thanks for joining us.

Let's go back quickly to Gary, in Alabama.

Of all the things you've seen over the last few days, Gary, firstly, where you ever afraid for your own safety? And secondly, do you think, short of having to get your paycheck, somebody says, "Gary, drive through a hurricane, off you go." Because the only reason I say this, a junior reporter called Richard Quest, many years ago, drove through Hurricane Gilbert, through complete inexperience, to get the story. I would never do it again.

TUCHMAN: Richard, Hurricane Gilbert was one for the record books and you're right, you probably never should do that again.

First of all, I'm glad Claire is OK after that episode. That sounds very scary.

I can tell you, like I said, we were near a safe location, even though we were where the eye crossed. But it did, at one point, right after one of our live reports, a tree fell from a gust of wind right in the spot we were doing our live reports. Obviously, if we would have been there -- we're not on 24 hours a day. We're on specific times during each hour, obviously we would have been there when that tree fell. That would have been very bad.

Statistics, though, show the odds are against the tree hitting us in the spot where we were at. We went right back to that spot and another tree did not fall.

I will tell you that CNN, and this is very important and I'm sure almost every other reputable news organization tells their reports, do not do anything that can endanger your life. There is no pressure on you. Do what you feel comfortable doing. Cover the story, but safety comes first.

QUEST: Many thanks, both of you, for joining us. Many thanks.

Now, still to come on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, the theater of war. We're going to examine how the stage is set for the confrontation between the playwright and the politician.

That's ahead. Stay with us.


QUEST: The formal war in Iraq may be over, but the debate certainly isn't, especially in the theater, of all places.

Tim Robbins's new play, "Embedded," has just opened here in London and he joins a long line of distinguished playwrights, many of whom see themselves as doing the job of journalism.

Chantelle Stein (ph) has more.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The symbols power has overtaken the need for hard facts. Hard facts at this stage are superfluous and lead only to doubt and cynicism.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice-over): Dancing to the tune of the Pentagon. That's the way actor-turned-playwright Tim Robbins portrays the American media in his play, "Embedded."

TIM ROBBINS, ACTOR-TURNED-PLAYWRIGHT: The major news medias did not collectively do great reporting, because if they had, we wouldn't have gone to war.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Military occupation equals freedom.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The play, which is born out of his anger at the Iraq war, has at its center a cabal of neoconservatives bent on conflict and power, with names that leave few guessing who that represent.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What have you got, Rum-Rum (ph)?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They are see to be controlling what Robbins portrays as a pliant press who slavishly give a sanitized version of the war.

(on camera): "Embedded" is part of a growing body of protest drama over the war in Iraq. Here in Britain especially, art is taking the war and it's supporters to task while at the same time reviving the genre political theater itself.

(voice-over): Plays like "Guantanamo, The Madness of George W." and now David Hare's "Stuff Happens," all receiving critical acclaim here in the U.K.

Most are based on post-9/11 politics in the United States and take deliberate jabs on President George W. Bush's and his administration. Many are simply dramatized transcripts and testimony of events.

ROBBINS: There's millions of people that have had it with the media and feel like they've been betrayed by the media and want another source of information.

What it does provoke is thought and it does provoke discussion and it does provoke debate and people are desperate for that.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: While there have those who applaud his art, others see it and plays like it as one-sided.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The trouble with one-sided propaganda theatre, what in facts I've recently call twin track theatre, which is theatre that tries to be propaganda and tries to entertainment, let's down one side or the other.

You can not present -- it's very difficult to present one side of an argument and still entertain because it becomes a rant.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Critics aside, ultimately it will be the audiences who judge the theatre of this war.

Chantelle Stein (ph), CNN, London.


QUEST: Some would say it is food for thought. Others would say it's a rollicking good watch. Which is it, if not both?

I'm joined now here in the studio by Stephen Pollard, the syndicated columnist, and Victoria Brittain, the journalist and writer of the play "Guantanamo."

Victoria, when you write this sort of thing, what is indeed your object? What's your aim and your goal?

VICTORIA BRITTAIN, JOURNALIST/PLAYWRIGHT: Well, first of all, we didn't write it. The co-author, Gillian Slovo, and I. It's all taken from taped evidence. So every single word of it is the words either of the detainees themselves or of their families or the lawyers.

But what was the aim? The aim was to explore what this moment in the war on terror, which is Guantanamo, what it was meaning to people most involved.

QUEST: What did you add to it that journalism didn't? Because if you're just taking transcripts, frankly, that's the sort of thing we take and report. What happened? What sort of spin are you putting on it?

BRITTAIN: Well, we didn't put any spin on it and I think.


BRITTAIN: No, we didn't. I think that's why people love the play. Because what they've got is something that journalists where not the mediators, and that's why these people agreed to talk to us at such length and with such intimacy, and I think that's what gives it.

QUEST: You mean they got a partisan view of the transcript.

BRITTAIN: No. They didn't get any partisan view. They told us quietly in their homes or in hotels, whenever we met them, what had happened to them, in a very, very low key way.

STEPHEN POLLARD, COLUMNIST: I thought it was a very good play. It was very -- and purely theatrically -- it was very interesting to watch, unlike some other plays I've seen exploring a similar sort of -- using a similar mechanism. I was kept interested throughout the whole time.

That said, I find it absolutely bizarre that you should say there was no spin and it wasn't in any way slanted. It struck me as being at best načve in that it simply regurgitated the excuses and the justifications of people who are either being held in Guantanamo Bay or those who are associated with them.

QUEST: But you see, isn't that.


POLLARD: . by definition they say something, therefore it's true.

QUEST: Isn't that the inevitability of these sorts of plays, Stephen, that the authors, the producers, they come to them from a particular point of view.

POLLARD: And there's nothing wrong with that. Don't get me wrong. I mean, you know, Victoria is entitled to put on a play such as that, as I might be to put on a play arguing that, you know, people such as her, who oppose the war, where in fact in favor of Saddam continuing in power.

We have a very different perspective on the issue. That said, you know, I happen to think that the play was in many ways grotesque, because it didn't in any way consider the wider issue of how, for instance, a democratic society deals with those people who don't accept the norms of democratic behavior.

QUEST: Surely, Stephen, it is exactly the role of people like Victoria to raise these questions from on anti-authoritarian point of view, to actually put the liberal -- you must disagree with it, but the perception is that that is what they're doing, and that is function of theater.

POLLARD: Yes. I go along with that completely. Where I object, and Victoria's play is exempt from this because as for as I know it was a commercial production and, frankly, you know, if they can get an audience for a play like that, fantastic.

What I object to is plays such as the one that's just opened international, "Stuff Happens" by David Hare, which I feel my taxes are contributing towards, which is again a -- it's a sort of subtle exploration, but from an extremely biased anti-war perspective.

You go -- I mean it's fascinating going to the opening night. The audience -- as soon as Bush came on stage, the character -- basically it's comprised of actors pretending to be the participants. As soon as the Bush character came on stage and talked about evil, the audience guffawed as if they were a pantomime, you know, he's the staged villain, George Bush.

And these sorts of plays, it seems to me, are designed not to explore the issues, but to sort of massage the political erogenous zones of those people who go and watch them.

BRITTAIN: I have to say, as far as our play is concerned, that isn't what happened. And your quite wrong to say that the it was biased.

We went out not knowing what we would find. We found half-a-dozen families who were willing to talk to us. We didn't choose them. We didn't know what their stories were.


POLLARD: Surprisingly enough, the families say that their relatives are innocent.

QUEST: Would you agree, though, that there is a tendency, and it may be on inevitability that all the plays of this genre, "Stuff Happens," "Embedded," "Guantanamo," they all take the anti-war posture. There are no plays out there saying this was a jolly good thing, we got rid of a tyrant.

BRITTAIN: Of course there aren't any plays out there.

QUEST: Why not?

BRITTAIN: Because if you're going to do a documentary play, you've got to have the people who are in the real life the actors, willing to be in it. Can I finish?

POLLARD: Of course.

BRITTAIN: Nobody in the British government, nobody in the American administration or the neo-con supporters, none of them would agree to be interviewed by us.

QUEST: But there surely must be a body of people that would want to say actually, we support what was done and we think it is right, making the other side of this argument.

BRITTAIN: They wouldn't come on our show. They would not. We did hours and hours and hours of testimony. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) were people to defend it.

POLLARD: Well, yes, I mean it is perhaps beneath the belt to say, well, given your track record of support for all kinds of bizarre organizations and political views, it's hardly surprising that they wouldn't talk to you.

That said, there are good ways of doing it, from an anti-war perspective, that are subtle and interesting.

QUEST: Many thanks indeed, Stephen, Victoria.

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 Richard Quest, in London. Many thanks for joining us.



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