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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired March 19, 2005 - 21:00:00   ET


WALTER RODGERS, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Walter Rodger, in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
We begin this week with the remarkable story of five women fighting for justice over the murder of their brother at a Belfast bar. The McCartney sisters blame the Irish Republican Army for their brother Robert's killing and for covering up the crime afterwards. Their courage to speak out has made the world's media take note.

It has made the U.S. president and Senator Ted Kennedy listen, and we now wonder if it is possible that the sisters candor and bravery will break the IRA's code of silence and perhaps change Northern Ireland's politics forever.

To discuss this further I'm joined by Charles Sennott, European bureau chief for the "Boston Globe;" from New York, Neall O'Dowd, editor of the "Irish Voice;" and from Washington, D.C., Irish television correspondent Carole Coleman.

Carole, is this a huge story or a flash in the pan?


It has been an astonishing week for the sisters. As somebody said, this is the subject matter that movies are made out of. It has been a bad week here, I think, for Gerry Adams. The McCartney sisters have definitely dominated the scene. There's in the message the people want to hear. They are the people that George Bush met.

I think it is a very big story and fairly big here and very big back in Ireland.

RODGERS: Neall, would you agree?

NEALL O'DOWD, "IRISH VOICE": Not really, I think, obviously, it is a big story for this week, but the American media will cover anything Irish on St. Patrick's week. They're usually looking for an angle. But remember, they have to get back to Michael Jackson and his pajamas today and next week.

So I suspect that the McCartney story, while it is a noble and very brave story of the courage of five sisters, will not have a lasting impact on the situation in Northern Ireland.

It may well change one thing which is that we will get to the point of IRA disbandment faster than we would have, but as regards the family themselves, they're going to have an enormous struggle. You know, when the media has gone away, unfortunately their ordeal will continue, in my opinion.

RODGERS: Charles, when Senator Ted Kennedy refuses to meet with Gerry Adams, that's the equivalent of a Celtic tsunami, isn't it?

CHARLES SENNOTT, "BOSTON GLOBE": It is. I think that a lot of people don't realize that all of the political parties were frozen out of the breakfast, everyone, including Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein.

So this has been a little bit hyped, you know, Gerry is getting the cold shoulder. He is definitely getting the cold shoulder, but it sells on Falls Road (ph) in Belfast to get the cold shoulder from George Bush. It doesn't sell to get the cold shoulder from Ted Kennedy. Kennedy is the lion of the Democratic Party, the icon of Irish Americans, and for him to say he won't meet with Gerry is a very big deal.

And I think this story is a big deal. I think it has legs. And I think it is kind of one of those great accidents of history that has come at just the right moment to really help toward change.

RODGERS: We have disagreement.

Neall, how much difference do you think it's going to make? Is it going to push the IRA paramilitaries any closer towards disarming or disbanding?

O'DOWD: I think, obviously, it will engage the decision much more strongly than it has so far.

I think the key element of this week was Gerry Adams, actually, not the McCartney sisters, and what he was saying.

What Gerry Adams was saying in the numerous interviews and clearly in my newspaper was he believes the IRA will disband. Now, he hasn't used that kind of strong language before. He has played around with the words and, you know, used some obfuscation.

But I would take out of this week that the long term major story out of this week is that Gerry Adams and Mark McGuinness and the other leaders of Sinn Fein are at the fork in the road. One side is paramilitarism and the other side is politics, and I think they are going to come down firmly on the side of politics.

RODGERS: Carole, would this story have more resonance if it was someone other than the McCartney sisters who stood up and said wait a minute, folks, the IRA is a criminal syndicate, it's no longer a patriotic romantic band. I mean, what is it going to take beyond the McCartney sisters for this story to have an impact?

COLEMAN: Well, I disagree with Neall because I don't think it could have more resonance, and I think it is very interesting what they were saying was that this murder of their brother, it was not part of some romantic struggle against British occupation.

This is sort of the remnants of what is left of the IRA. This is what Donald Rumsfeld might call the dead-enders, and while they might be serious, they really are just criminal gangsters operating under this shadow or this umbrella of the IRA. And I think for them to speak out about it, I think should be able to make a difference.

I'm sure there are many others who have saying why didn't we speak out about our brother or our sister or our father or whoever, and I think it will be a good start. And if they can continue their campaign and keep up with it, it may help to sort of, I suppose, dissipate what is going on in the background.

I mean, what do IRA members do after peace comes? They get involved in crime. Perhaps they get involved in drugs. And I think that's an aspect of this which is often overlooked, which is perhaps not so political.

RODGERS: Charlie, you have a huge Irish readership in South Boston. Catholics aren't supposed to be killing Catholics. Is this going to change the contributions that come from South Boston to the IRA?

SENNOTT: You know, they always have. I mean, this is the thing that I think the Irish American community has been unaware of, tone deaf on or not willing to see, which is that the IRA has killed many other people in the Catholic community.

It has done many so-called punishment beatings. It has been a thug force for a very long time and people have always played along because, as the sisters told me, you know, we accepted that because we believed that it was part of the struggle, part of the cause. We needed a very tough line to bring a sense of law and order on the streets. The IRA provided that. But the struggle is over. The IRA is not needed.

And I think a big part of this, I think Neall would back me up on this, he would have a better reading in a way, is that the Irish American community is woken up to the notion that it has been overly romanticizing the IRA. And I think the biggest issue is that for the Irish American community -- it is the getting rid of the misty-eyed sense that the IRA is in this noble struggle. That struggle is over.

And I think on a very much on the level of what is reality in Belfast and how is this going to play out in Northern Ireland, I think one of the big issues we haven't talked about yet is policing. I think there is the disbandment of the IRA as a possibility coming out of the McCartney sisters story, but what I saw in their home amazed me, which is when I was interviewing them, there was a little bomb scare. Not a big deal. But who came? The Police Service of Northern Ireland came knocking on the door. The only time in the past the old RUC, as it was called, would have knocked on their door was to rip up floor boards in such of guns.

These people have trust in the PSNI. They want law and order. And they, as very often has happened in this peace process, once again, the people are ahead of the politicians going toward policing.

RODGERS: Neall, if the McCartney sisters know who murdered their brother, doesn't it follow that Gerry Adams also knows who killed their brother? And if he doesn't speak out, isn't he harboring a fugitive?

O'DOWD: He has definitely spoken out. He has told the people that he has given names to the police ombudsman himself, of who he thinks was responsible.

Gerry Adams didn't kill anyone in a bar in Belfast. A couple of psychopaths did, and it was a dreadful crime, but to lay this on Gerry Adams door is extremely unfair.

And the other thing I would probably disagree with, Charlie, is I don't actually think Irish Americans have romantic and sentimentalized versions of what is going on in Northern Ireland. You've got to remember that we believed in what Gerry Adams was doing, and in 1994 Gerry Adams delivered an IRA ceasefire which has held more or less since then, and in that time we have stopped the killings in Northern Ireland 90 percent of the time.

And I think that is a huge advantage to this process, that people don't talk about anymore.

SENNOTT: Just to be clear, we were talking about South Boston, a unique corner of the Irish American community that has NORAID (ph) graffiti everywhere and supports the IRA. But I agree with you that Gerry is --


O'DOWD: It is a very complex community.

SENNOTT: I agree completely. I agree with that totally.

O'DOWD: The people that brought Bill Clinton into the game were the Irish Americans. The people who brought Senator Mitchell (ph), who was the chairman of the peace talks, were the Irish Americans. The idea of a special envoy came from Irish Americans.

But, you know, you're wrong with these stereotypes. I would make a bet with anyone here today: Sinn Fein will do better in the British elections that are coming up in May than they have ever done before. And what does that say about the national community? That they all favor thugs and murderers? No. What it says is, this man, Gerry Adams and Mark McGuinness, have tried risking their lives to bring peace to Northern Ireland, to push forward a solution that would be fair and equitable on all sides. And, by the way, I really think they will still succeed in doing that.

RODGERS: Neall, Carole, Charlie, thanks very, very much. And Happy St. Patrick's Day belatedly to all of you.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, two years on from the start of the second Iraq War. We hear from two journalists who lived to tell the story.

Stay with us.


RODGERS: Welcome back.

This weekend marks the second anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq. It has cost a fortune in dollars, but more importantly in lives and livelihoods. Journalists too became victims, killed or maimed, while covering the conflict. Telling the world about the insurgency, the bomb blasts, the multi-party elections, is a risky job. Democracy in Iraq it appears is still a dubious dream. With the benefit of hindsight, we have to ask has it all been worth it.

I'm joined now from Baghdad by "Newsweek" correspondent Rod Nordland and John Simpson, the BBC's world affairs editor.

Rod, what is there to celebrate two years later in Iraq?

ROD NORDLAND, "NEWSWEEK": Well, you know, I was thinking about that question, an I think if I were an Iraqi and I would asked that I would probably say, well, I'm still alive. My family is still alive. Most of the people I know are still alive, but I do know of a lot of other people that cant say that.

But in terms of like how my life has changed, in most cases, for an awful lot of people, it has changed for the worse, and it's not getting better any time soon as far as people can see.

RODGERS: The U.S. taxpayer, Rod, is paying $4.7 billion a month to keep that occupation, reform, whatever it is, going. What are they getting for that $4.7 billion a month?

NORDLAND: Well, most of that money now, in terms of money actually being spent on the ground, is being spent for security, and so far we're not really getting security. The Iraqi people aren't getting it and we're not getting it. We've lost 1,500 troops.

The Iraqi police now have a higher body count than our forces. For instance, they've lost 1,800 policemen.

RODGERS: John Simpson, is Iraq slipping out of the public consciousness? It's as if there was a war, we won the war, then we had an election, and we have a government, even though we don't really have a government in Iraq. Is the public forgetting about it? Are they losing interest in Iraq?

JOHN SIMPSON, BBC: I think it's somewhat worse than that. I think the journalists are losing interest in it, which is really quite depressing, I think.

Ever since the election -- the election was broadcast, it was demonstrated in vast quantities, across the newspapers and television stations and radio stations of the world, and we were told that that had more or less kind of finished it, that the Iraqi people had sorted out their future, they had done so with great courage -- which is certainly true -- and that that was effectively the end of the story.

Well, of course, it isn't anything remotely the end of the story. The war, as Rod says, and it is now a civil war there, is worse than it was. It's worse every time I go back there. I go back about once every month, every two months. Every time, it's much, much worse. And it is just that you have to look in the newspapers, you have to look on your television bulletins very carefully, to see what has actually happened, and you'll find that 25 soldiers, 25 policemen, whatever it may be, senior figures, have been assassinated that day. But it's not in big letters on the front page anymore.

RODGERS: Rod, from a media perspective, there are actually two wars in Iraq, aren't there? There is the war that Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya covers. Then there is the war that the Western journalists cover, because they travel under the relative umbrella of the American and British forces.

How do you reconcile this concept of two wars and two different perspectives in the public mind?

NORDLAND: I'm not sure that is entirely true. There is a lot of reporting still being done outside of being imbedded with American or British troops. There is still a lot of independent reporting being done by the Western media.

The press corps has dwindled, it's true. The appetite for the same old story over and over again -- the story being, as John Simpson said, it only gets worse -- people are getting tired of hearing that. But nonetheless, there is still a lot of reporting going on, and I don't think you're seeing a completely different picture in Al-Jazeera. You're seeing a much different slant on it, but you're getting that in the Western media as well.

RODGERS: Rod, in Iraq, I have to ask, do people now regret Saddam has gone? In the West, there is the perception that everything is better in Iraq because Saddam Hussein is gone. But when I was there several months ago, I began to hear, at least from cab drivers and in the coffee shops, things were better under Saddam. How do the Iraqis feel?

NORDLAND: Yes, you do hear that all the time, and in many ways, they were better. In practical ways, like how much electricity people have and whether they have running water and whether they have to worry about being blow up when they walk down the street. In all of those ways, it was better during Saddam's time.

But if you probe a little bit, with almost all of those people who say that, and say, well, would you rather turn the clock back and have Saddam back, very few of them would say that is right. Almost everyone agrees, things are much worse, they're very unhappy with the occupation, they're very unhappy with the pace of putting a government together now, which has been six weeks and still no government, and it may be several weeks more.

But at the same time, they don't want to turn the clock back.

RODGERS: John, about two weeks ago, the media latched onto the idea, well, maybe Bush was right about Iraq, yet there is a bit of a power vacuum there now. Then there is the problem in the rest of the Middle East. Well, he was right, because the Israeli-Palestinian process is going again. But that is a functio of the fact Yasser Arafat died. And then we have the similar thing said about Lebanon, there is this fledgling democratic movement there. But Bush wasn't really right about that. It was just that Hariri was killed. Was Bush right about the Middle East?

SIMPSON: That's the big question.

The thing is, I don't know how Rod feels, but every time I am there, I hear Iraqis saying theses kinds of things, but I do think there is a subtext in which really ordinary Iraqis are better off without Saddam.

And I do think also looking back at it, I don't think there was any alternative to doing something about it. The idea of those appalling U.N. sanctions, which the United States and Britain forced through year after year, doing such appalling damage to ordinary Iraqis and their lives and their families, I mean, that was no policy at all. That was an absence of policy.

But when you think -- I mean, I think that the United States is stuck in a war that it certainly can't win in Iraq. That it is going to have to walk out of, no doubt announcing it was a great success, as the British government will do, at some stage, and then wave goodbye to the people that it is leaving behind. But, I mean, you know, that is not a victory.

These other things are very interesting. I mean, it's extraordinary. Thank God we're seeing a little bit of movement between the Israelis and Palestinians. Marvelous to see that. Absolutely marvelous. Marvelous too to see that there might be some sort of movement in Lebanon.

But, frankly, I don't think anybody who knows anything about Lebanon, for instance, seriously thinks that's got anything to do with Iraq at all.

RODGERS: John Simpson, Rod Nordland, thank you very much.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, an uncivil war. We profile one filmmakers bid to bring Liberia's conflict to the world's consciousness.

That's next.


RODGERS: Welcome back.

Picture this. Hundreds of dead bodies falling to the ground. Soldiers, mostly teenagers, fight a bloody urban battle. This is Liberia in Africa during the height of the civil revolt, a place you're unlikely to go on holiday, a place most journalists don't ever venture to.

James Brabazon is an exception. He traveled with the country's rebel LURD army as they marked on the capital of Monrovia. The result was "Liberia: An Uncivil War," a film Brabazon co-produced and directed.

James joins me now to discuss his life and career as a documentary filmmaker.

James, you've got a tough job. You go around shooting pictures of human incivility, barbarity at its worst, the kind of things most people do not like to see. Why do you do it?

JAMES BRABAZON, DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKER: Well, I mean, I suppose in some ways, you can say I have a tough job. I think really the toughest thing about it is documenting people's lives who are really experiencing conditions that are very difficult indeed.

So however difficult it might be for me to go to the field and work, the people whose lives I am witnessing are usually having a much worse time of it.

RODGER: Do you think you have any impact on making their lives better or stopping the killing or helping starving people?

BRABAZON: I think one thing that you learn very quickly doing this is that having any sort of preconceptions about being a moral crusader or going somewhere to help people is fundamentally misguided.

What I try to do is bear witness to events. I try to physically record that actuality of what is happening and broadcast that, to inform people of the real situation insofar as I can on the ground in any given situation.

RODGERS: But as a documentary producer, you go to places like Sierra Leone, Angola, Liberia. Places most people could never even find on the map. Why do you do it?

BRABAZON: I think I'm quite drawn to the fringes of what we would deem to be acceptable behavior. I'm very drawn to aberrations in human behavior, especially in warfare. I think that having worked in a lot of different conflict areas, one develops some skill, and I think it is important that people do what they're good at.

RODGERS: Why is Africa such a difficult place for a journalist to work, or a documentary film producer?

BRABAZON: It's difficult logistically. I would say that working in Africa is about 80 percent logistics and 20 percent filming. Physically, becaues of the degradation of internal infrastructure and communications, to get from anyone place to any other place in somewhere like Liberia during the war is very difficult. There are no telecommunications. There is no healthcare. There is -- it is very difficult physically to get power to charge batteries. You can't replace tape stock. That difficult.

And what's more difficult, I think, is trying to assimilate and understand what you are filming and make the best possible report on what you are seeing and essentially do justice to the subject.

RODGERS: Last question: in making documentaries about Africa, the news that you have covered, don't you run the risk of reinforcing the West's stereotypes about Africa?

BRABAZON: It is a problem and what I would say is when people talk about the barbarity of African conflicts and the savagery of warfare, I would say that it wasn't so very long ago in Europe that we were putting people into gas chambers. More recently in European conflicts, concentration camps were being operated, mass graves were being filled in the former Yugoslavia.

I think that before we seek to damn out of hand Africans involved in conflicts, we should take a very close look at our own crimes.

RODGERS: James Brabazon, thank you very, very much.

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 Walter Rodgers. Thanks for joining us.



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