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Media Coverage of Iraq

Aired January 29, 2005 - 21:00:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Fionnuala Sweeney, in London. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
Later in the program I'll be speaking to the director-general of the BBC who is at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Plus 60 years on, we look at how the media remembers the horror of the Holocaust.

First though to Iraq, where barely a day goes by without a bomb attack. Each explosion reminds reporters of the immense danger they face in doing their job. Journalists are among those on high alert this weekend as Iraqis go to the polls in the country's first-ever democratic elections.

Many are too afraid to leave their hotels, so what impact does the threat of violence have on the media's coverage of this historic event?

Joining me now from Baghdad to discuss this further is ITN's Julian Manyon, CNN's chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour and Michael Lawrence, managing editor at Reuters News Agency.

My first question to you, Julian. There are those who suggest that there has been a relative lull in the violence in the run up to this election. However, it might be the calm before the storm. What's your vies?

JULIAN MANYON, ITV CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's really the question that I'm asking myself today, because today has been one of the quietest, with the exception of a car bomb this morning which killed four policemen and a number of other I suppose you have to call them minor incidents.

It's been one of the calmest in recent days. And we are just wondering what's going to happen on Sunday. That is the big question. There are all kinds of threats that are being made by the insurgents, and one also assumes that they will have to do something, but what form that something will take, we don't know.

SWEENEY: Christiane, do you think that there is a danger that what is actually happening in the election itself threatens to be overshadowed by the violence or at least the threat of violence?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN SR. INTL. CORRESPONDENT: Well, if the violence becomes extraordinary on election day, it will be what people remember about election day, because it will mean that people won't turn out, and people need to turn out in very large numbers for this election to be legitimate and credible. A heavy turnout, or at least more than 50 percent, is what is required. Any less than that and, of course, it will still be significant, because it will mean certain numbers of people braved the violence and the threat.

SWEENEY: Michael Lawrence here in the studio, Reuters is doing quite a first with AP on this election event, working together, pooling their resources on quite a huge scale, precisely because of this security situation.

MICHAEL LAWRENCE, REUTERS NEWS AGENCY: Absolutely. It's a safety pool, and it is unprecedented in terms of the sheer scale of it.

We have done pools with other agencies in the past on an ad hoc basis, but given the dangers in Iraq at the moment, we approached AP and asked them if they would like to pool coverage for the three days around the election and they embraced the idea.

It means that we're putting fewer people in the field overall and yet we're still provided worldwide coverage of this important event.

SWEENEY: Julian Manyon, in Baghdad, do you think that this could be a sense of things to come, or do you think the media has more or less borne the brunt of covering the story in Iraq, given the violence so far?

MANYON: Well, I assume the point that is being got at here is really whether the violence is getting in the way of us covering this story, and I'm afraid to say it is, but it's not the only factor getting in the way of us covering the story.

To try to get some understanding of what lay behind Christiane's remarks just now -- in other words, the scale of the turnout and the validity or otherwise of these elections, the violence is obviously a major deterrent for journalists doing their jobs.

You know, I have been out in the last couple of days a couple of times, but one goes out fearfully in the knowledge that one might either be shot at or in the extreme worst case -- one prays it will never happen -- actually kidnapped.

Beyond that, it must be said, there is also another wide range of factors which are actually preventing journalists from covering this election properly, and one of those factors, for example, is the way in which the American handlers who are actually running the Ministry of Information's affairs here in real terms, have designed the whole thing. I would say that along with the violence, it is just as serious an impediment for journalists.

Why, for example, we've been limited to filming at only five polling stations, and we discovered when the list of the five polling stations was published that four of those five polling stations are actually in Shia areas, and therefore by definition will shed very little light on whether Sunnis vote or not.

SWEENEY: All right.

MANYON: The pictures of people voting will be there, but perhaps the truth of what is going on won't.

SWEENEY: OK. I'd like to expand on that in a moment, but just another question, Julian. Do you expect this election to be any kind of a watershed for journalists in terms of their ability to cover this story, in terms of the security situation, in terms of what we can expect from the new Iraqi government?

MANYON: Well, I mean, yes, it's a watershed. I don't think there's ever been an election like this. One can say in a way it's exhilarating, because Iraqis are being given the chance to vote. On the other hand, it's deeply disturbing for a whole raft of reasons, including the ones I have mentioned.

And going beyond that, it's disturbing quite frankly because it's very difficult to see how these elections can live up to international standards in terms of dispassionate supervision and policing of the polls. There are no international observers out there for the same reason that there are very few journalists out there. And the journalists that are, I suppose, one has to say either courageous or mad enough to get in their cars and try to do something are only going to see a small fraction of what is going on.

I mean, we've got a situation in Mosul, for example, where American troops, we now discover because the Iraqi employees of the election organization have deserted en masse, it's American soldiers who will be transporting the ballot boxes around when they are full of votes. This is really very far from ideal, and if it were happening in any other country - - I mean, one could mention Ukraine, for example -- there would be a wild chorus of international protest.

These are the sorts of things really that make this a watershed, and it's going to be very interesting to see how it pans out in the next few days, both in terms of what happens and in terms of whether journalists are actually satisfactorily able to give the world a dispassionate view of whether these elections are credible or not.

SWEENEY: Christiane, what has been your experience of covering these elections thus far?

AMANPOUR: Well, as Julian says, for all of those reasons, extraordinary and completely different from any other elections, because usually you're all excited. You go to the polls, for instance, in Afghanistan or wherever it is, to see people, to see the happiness on their faces, to watch them, you know, sometimes in very moving ways cast their first-ever free ballot, and we would love to be able to see that here, but it is going to be difficult.

Here is what I think. I think we've all raised the bar so low -- in fact, lowered the bar, we're playing a game of expectations here. In other words, if several Iraqis turn out to vote, like even a low percentage, it will still be considered a successful election just for that reason alone, and if a few journalists can go out and get some pictures it will be considered a victory for us, just for that reason alone.

But it won't be perfect. And, of course, the operating phrase that we hear from all the military here, from all the officials who are complete involved in setting up these elections, I mean, the U.S. military and officials, you know, what they're telling us is it's just a first step.

So, you know, this is a huge experiment. It's the credibility of the United States and Great Britain on the line. They have gone to war to change the Middle East, to bring a democracy, but this election, they're telling us in very cautious terms, will just be a victory for the fact that it takes place.

SWEENEY: First step -- Julian Manyon.

MANYON: Well, I'm not sure, I'm afraid, in a situation like this that one can score a victory just because an election takes place.

Elections have to operate to slightly different standards. They have to be held, surely, to represent the views of the electorate. The problem here is that a substantial part of the electorate doesn't want to vote. Another part of the electorate has been intimidated. And the greatest part of the electorate is extremely keen to vote, because they believe that power will come to them through the ballot box.

Now, it's a fascinating cocktail, but whether this really represents a political step forward is slightly unclear. I mean, as you know, there is debate before the election between those who believe that it is a victory, in the way that Christiane put it, and those who believe that by marginalizing the Sunnis further you're actually spreading the seeds for further disaster.

We really will have to wait and see. We're in uncharted waters. The uncharted waters are being entered by politicians desperate, really desperate, to make some progress in this quagmire, and the real question is whether they are actually walking deeper into it rather than finding a way out.

SWEENEY: Michael Lawrence, let's roll back just a little bit and talk about the logistics and the practical difficulties of covering this election come Sunday.

LAWRENCE: Incredibly difficult to cover because of the security concerns. Reuters has in total 60 people deployed in Iraq. So a very big team. That's for our TV Touchstone Picture Services.

Travel will be difficult because traffic will be banned other than official cars, so if you're on the road it could be deemed that you're a target. So we have deployed people in various key cities and we'll do our best to give as comprehensive coverage as we possibly can, but the rule for our people is safety first. No story is worth a life.

SWEENEY: Christiane talked there about, you know, we've all lowered the bar to a certain extent given the situation in Iraq, but what will have been a successful day's coverage for you?

LAWRENCE: As comprehensive a coverage as possible. And all our people safe at the end of it.

SWEENEY: And, Christiane, what are your expectations of the vote on Sunday?

AMANPOUR: Well, I think, as you've just been mentioning, the idea of trying to get to a poll is one that is now presenting a huge challenge for us. There are, as we have mentioned, several polling stations around the city that have been allowed to have us in, but they're just a few and, again, will they be representative and will they even be safe.

So that, I think, is a really big challenge. The very effort to go out and watch people voting, which is, after all, the point of being a journalist on election day, and to be able to then talk to people who voted, because what if they don't want to be shown on camera. We're already being told that it will be difficult to show people's faces, to get all the normal things that a normal news operation would want to get out of a normal election.

SWEENEY: All right. I'm afraid we're out of time. There we'll have to leave it. But thank you, everybody -- Julian Manyon, Christiane Amanpour, both in Baghdad, Michael Lawrence, here in the studio. Thanks indeed.

Now up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, tackling the tough issues or just one big schmooze fest. We ask the BBC's director-general why he went to Davos.

Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back.

From Blair to Mbeki to U2's Bono, global leaders, business brains and celebrities gathered in Davos this week for the World Economic Forum. The Swiss ski resort was a magnet, too, for the world's media. Hundreds of journalists were there. That's understandable with so many big names to interview. But did any real news come out of the conference?

Well, joining me now from Davos is Mark Thompson, director-general of the BBC.

Mark Thompson, what is the attraction of Davos for you?

MARK THOMPSON, BBC DIRECTOR-GENERAL: Well, I think from the point of view, both of the media and also people like me, who run chunks of the media, it's a great chance to rub shoulders with and to talk to politicians and other big thinkers in industry and technology, in a fairly relaxed, informal setting, where you're more allowed to have a kind of honest conversation than you might, you know, back in the office, back in London or New York or LA.

SWEENEY: So it is more of a talking shop than anything actually productive coming from it?

THOMPSON: Well, I think, to be honest, I mean, you shouldn't underestimate the extent to which sometimes the right kind of conversations can really produce results and, you know, whether you're talking about a debate I've just come from, about anti-Americanism around the world, where U.S. senators and leaders from China, Indonesia and Iran all got together and started swapping differences, and also to some extent swapped things they agreed with, or you're talking about business leaders talking, as I was talking with colleagues this morning, about the future of wireless.

You know, real things can come out of it. So I think, yes, it is a talking shop, but sometimes talk can be productive.

SWEENEY: You say you've just come from a session an anti-Americanism. One description I read -- in fact, it was on the BBC Web site -- described Davos as perhaps the den of liberal thinkers. Is that an accurate description? And would that maybe explain why the Bush administration perhaps hasn't sent very many people to this year's conference?

THOMPSON: Well, we have Senator McCain, you know, a strong Republican senator in this BBC debate a few minutes ago, so I think, to be honest, I mean there are -- and certain now, I mean, the one thing that is really striking -- this is my first time at Davos -- is the extent to which big business is here, the big corporations, private equity in particular, very strongly in evidence this year.

So I think you find not just good liberal thinkers, but some pretty sharp and one would guess sometimes rather conservative business minds are on the case here as well.

SWEENEY: All right. We're talking about it being a talking shop, but the theme of this year's conference is taking responsibility for tough choices. Is it as much corporate responsibility coming to the fore at this conference as anything else?

THOMPSON: I think inevitably the news is made first and foremost by some of the political leaders. Our Prime Min. Tony Blair, for example, on the subject of climate change would be an example of that, but I think it is a chance for business leaders to hear about some of the big issues in our world, global warming, issues of development, poverty and disease in the developing world, and also issues of the big clashes in the world, in the Middle East and elsewhere.

And I think some of that does, I hope, rub off on all of us as well, so it makes us think a little bit harder, and I think for people like me, with the responsibility as editors, to think about the way in which the world is covered, again, it's a very useful way, a kind of inside way, of getting an understanding of some of the things that are going on in the world in ways which I hope would help me and many of my colleagues from other broadcasters and other newspaper and other media organizations also to think more seriously about how we cover the world.

SWEENEY: So do you think that it will have an impact on how you cover the world? You know, there are hundreds of journalists there. Will there be any follow-up on what takes place or the discussions that take place, do you think?

THOMPSON: I think the first thing you get, of course, over the next few days, and it's happening already, is instant news from Davos -- we get instant news from everywhere -- instant news from Davos, from CNN, the BBC, going around the world.

But in a way, what I'm talking about is something which may be slightly more longer term in its effect, which is that when you begin to confront the sheer complexities of our world, you know, the difficulties in reaching conflict resolution, whether it's in Africa, whether it's in the Middle East, Iraq, Israel, and you hear some of the leading players talking about that, it may just give you a slightly deeper sense of what's going on in the world, which could influence the way you think about your coverage six months or a year from now.

SWEENEY: For someone who is having their first visit there at Davos this year, I mean, you sound quite enthusiastic about it. Will you be going next year?

THOMPSON: I hope so. I mean, I don't know yet, but I must say -- just the sheer -- it's not many places you can go in the world where you can find yourself sitting next to both the chief executive of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) on one side and Bill Gates from Microsoft on the other side, talking about the future of technology. It's like a wonderful master class for me. I'm a Davos virgin, but I must say, I've enjoyed this first experience so far enormously.

SWEENEY: All right. Thanks very much indeed. There we leave it. Mark Thompson, director-general of the BBC.

And up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, 60 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, does the media fully convey the horror of the Nazi crimes?

Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back.

World leaders, survivors and journalists gathered in Poland this week to commemorate the atrocities committed at Auschwitz 60 years ago. Standing in the death camp where more than 1 million Jews were killed, they vowed that the World War II horror must never be forgotten.

But is today's generation overlooking the biggest crime every committed? And what role does the media play in cultivating a sense of history?

Well, to discuss this further I'm joined by Lawrence Rees, producer of the BBC series "Auschwitz, the Nazis and the Final Solution."

Lawrence, in a survey that you commissioned before this program was broadcast, something like nearly 50 percent of young people in Britain have never heard of Auschwitz. Were you surprised?

LAWRENCE REES, BBC PRODUCER: We were absolutely shocked, and actually that rose to 60 percent of women under 30. Particularly ignorance is greater amongst women for some reason. And we were completely shocked that the word Auschwitz was completely meaningless to these people.

SWEENEY: And to what do you attribute that?

REES: I think there's a number of factors.

First is, I think, in Britain you can give up history at 14 at school, so therefore there is a whole number of people who are simply opting out. I think also you are taught history at school in a very kind of piecemeal way. You can do Henry VIII one term and World War I the next, so it's sometimes hard to piece it together.

SWEENEY: And what about the passage of time? 60 years on and the fact that many young people today are more consumed with that flat screen TV than perhaps with what's on it.

REES: Absolutely. I think something very significant is going to happen now that this anniversary has come and gone. There's a real danger that something like Auschwitz just becomes another piece of bad things that happened in the past, like Genghis Khan's genocide in Persia or something, because to the generation now coming up, there is a lack of personal contact.

My own father fought in the war. My uncle died on the Battle of the Atlantic Convoys. So I always grew up with a very strong personal sense of it.

SWEENEY: But was also shocking really was your discovery that during the interviews that you did for this documentary, that the SS officers and not the officers involved in some of these camps really had no real regret for what they had done or what had taken place.

REES: I think that's absolutely right. One of the reasons that I think it's so important that this is remembered going forward is that I personally have met people, former members of the Nazi Party, who aren't sorry at all for what happened. They actually continue to believe.

SWEENEY: Is that legal today?

REES: Well, I think that to continue to believe that what you did was right, I don't think is illegal. They're not denying the Holocaust, which would be a crime in Germany. They simply are asked how do you feel about what you did, and they go, well, I believe it was right. It depends, obviously, on their level of guilt or complicity in crimes as to whether they're going to be prosecuted or not, but simply believing that what happened in the war was right, I don't think is a particular crime.

SWEENEY: What happened in the war is specifically what happened in these camps, and we're talking here also the majority of people being Jews. I mean, the elimination of an entire race.

REES: Well, we have an interview with an SS guard at Auschwitz, who was at Auschwitz, who says when we talked to him only a few months ago, at the time I believed it was right. He may say now, well, of course, now were it to happen again, I wouldn't be involved, and so on. He may try and distance himself that way, but he doesn't say -- notably he doesn't say I feel ashamed. He doesn't say I feel guilty.

SWEENEY: And today, still no regret? Do they say we wouldn't do it again today?

REES: Well, I think that certainly he would accept that it is wrong, but it's very interesting how they relativize (ph) that.

SWEENEY: Or abdicate responsibility.

REES: Well, what they do is, a typical kind of former Nazi response is to say I think it's just as wrong as the fact that you -- by you being the British and Americans -- firebombed our children at Dresden.


REES: So they'll say, you condemn that, and I'll condemn this. It's the kind of thing you often hear from terrorist groups, isn't it. Oh, well, no, I condemn all violence.

They're very careful. It's not what you'd imagine. You'd imagine, wouldn't you, you would get this absolute sense of condemnation, when in my experience with former Nazis, you tend not to get that.

SWEENEY: And is that different from perhaps other officers in other countries during the Second World War.

REES: Very much.

SWEENEY: . who would have been on -- would have committed similar crimes?

REES: Very much so. I mean, in series we've made, for example, looking at the war between Hitler and Stalin, you talk to former members of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, and we've met people there who when asked why did you commit atrocities, interestingly enough give the response that you'd expect to find from a German, which is, well, I was acting under orders, I had a gun to my head, either absolutely or metaphorically, and I couldn't do anything else. That's what you expect you're going to find from a lot of former Nazis, but in my experience you tend not to.

SWEENEY: What difference do you think your documentary is going to make in terms of raising awareness of Auschwitz in this country, for example?

REES: Well, I hope certainly it raises awareness of the actual nature of the place, but in addition what I really hope it does is it gets rid of this myth that it was created by insane people and therefore we can put it safely in the past; it's something that kind of mad Germans did. We can leave it alone, it's just a piece of history. Because when you start to try and unpack the whole decision-making process, what you find is that for the most part it's been created, this horror, by rational human beings who are calm and collected and, overtime, having a series of serious meetings to work out what to do. So it's much more terrifying and not as easily dismissed as saying, oh, well, it's just the work of insane people.

SWEENEY: Lawrence Rees, thank you very much indeed.

And that is 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 Fionnuala Sweeney, thanks for joining us.



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