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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired May 14, 2005 - 21:00:00   ET


WALTER RODGERS, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Walter Rodgers, 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 a bit of Blair bashing, figuratively, of course. But according to the media, the prime minister's election victory is nothing short of pyric. Newspapers and broadcasters alike have poured scorn on Prime Minister Blair's historic win, branding him a lame duck leader and calling for him to quit soon.

Should journalists be making these calls? And why has the media seemingly taken on the role of political opposition?

To discuss this further I'm joined by Adam Boulton, political editor for Sky News and Melanie Phillips, a columnist for Britain's "Daily Mail" newspaper.

Melanie, the headlines are there. "How long can he go on?", "Blair will be gone in a year," "Your time is up, Mr. Blair."

Don't you think that's rushing the issue the day after the election? I mean, isn't the public supposed to decide these things, not the newspapers?

MELANIE PHILLIPS, "DAILY MAIL": Well, the public has decided, and, of course, it delivers what on paper is a very comfortable majority for Mr. Blair, one which some previous prime ministers would have given a lot to have had.

But the fact is that the majority has been very greatly reduced from what Mr. Blair had before and I think it is true to say that Mr. Blair, or rather the Labor government, won the election despite Mr. Blair, not because of him.

RODGERS: But the opposition in this country is also in disarray. The Liberal Democrats came up with only 22 percent of the vote. The Tory leader fell on his sword. Michael Howard is gone. So is the media the semi-loyal opposition?

PHILLIPS: Well, by default it is. Because, as you say, the Conservative opposition has fallen apart and the Liberal Democrats never were anywhere to start with. But I would have to say, I mean, I think that the media has been forced into this situation over many years, where, you know, we've had several years now of the Blair ascendancy in this country, with an enormous parliamentary majority, which has brought about a kind of on-going nervous breakdown of the Conservative opposition, which simply can't get itself together.

And consequently, it has not been opposing the government very effectively at all for many years. So in that vacuum the media has filled it.

RODGERS: Adam, are you the institutional opposition?

ADAM BOULTON, SKY NEWS: I think you do have to divide the media into two. We have an openly partisan press and we have a supposedly impartial electronic media. And so it's the newspapers only who have actually been calling for Blair to go.

That said, a lot of television commentators have been saying Mr. Blair is in trouble because if you look at the dynamic, he's the one who has been moving down, albeit he's still higher than the others, and the others have been coming up to a certain extent.

We also have the complicating factor over here that Mr. Blair has announced that he will depart sometime in the next four or five years, so inevitably, a guessing game, since there is no fixed term as to when he goes. I think he's perfectly legitimate as a story.

I also think that it is legitimate for the press to report dissent in the Labor ranks, people who are heavily critical of Tony Blair and people who openly want him to go.

RODGERS: Good point, but as I read the news media, and I'm an avid reader of British papers -- they are great fun. As I read it, the Labor left, the anti-Blair faction in his own party, gets far more coverage than the Blair loyalists within the Labor Party.

BOULTON: Yes, I think that is certainly the case. And, of course, the people who have all spoken up against Tony Blair, saying he should go now, were in fact saying that before the election results came in. And sometimes it is exaggerated.

I mean, I was amused that on the "Daily Mail" newspaper, for example, when Mr. Blair appointed his new government, on the front page the "Daily Mail" described that as brazen defiance. I mean, who is he defying? He's the man who has been elected. The odds are he was defying the "Daily Mail."

So I think it can get over done.

RODGERS: But it still seems incongruous to me. Margaret Thatcher's first term, she only had a 46-seat majority. Here's a guy, third term, has a 66-seat edge in the parliament, and he's being abused.

PHILLIPS: That's because the dynamics of the party in power are quite different. I mean, it's true that Mrs. Thatcher finally lost the support of her party, or at least a very significant faction of her parliamentary party. But Mr. Blair has lost the support of, first of all, the country.

I mean, it is hard to exaggerate this, and I know it is difficult to get one's mind around, because people did vote Labor rather than Conservative. But of the people who voted Labor, like I said before, they were voting very largely by default, not because they support Mr. Blair.

And in the parliamentary party, which he relies on to get his measures through Parliament, he is now facing, as I say, upwards of 50 people who are passionately against the kinds of things that he thinks are going to define him and his legacy as a radical reforming Labor prime minister.

BOULTON: It only takes 35 of those 50 to defeat him in parliament. So that's one of the problems with parliamentary majority.

But I would entertain your argument to this extent. Since the fall of Margaret Thatcher, newspapers have successively destroyed or attempted to destroy prime ministers. The conservative press, for example, was never reconciled to John Major and was so heavily critical of him, normally supportive newspapers --

RODGERS: You're a solid journalist. Is that your responsibility, to bring down a prime minister?

BOULTON: I don't think it's the television journalists responsibility. I think newspapers in this country have a 200-year, 300- year tradition of being partisan and I think you have to accept that.

I think part of the problem, part of the frenzy, if you like, you know, a lot of those newspaper headlines is actually that they are conservative newspapers who want to bring an end to Labor rule, but in a sense they are less influential because, you know, big deal, the "Daily Mail" or the "Telegraph" is critical of Tony Blair. Well, you know, you can have said that without picking it up.

And so in a sense, there is a kind of rage of impotence there, and almost the most important thing is the fact that the "Sun," which has supported governments on both sides, is still sticking with Tony Blair. That's very, very important indeed.

PHILLIPS: The British press has a deserved reputation for being extremely bloody minded, taking no prisoners, being, I think, by the standards of many continental countries in Europe and by the standards of many American newspapers, extremely rude, extremely impolite, extremely direct, and extremely undeferential to authority, which I happen to think are our particular democratic strengths.

But nevertheless, newspapers also reflect to a very large degree what they think their readership is already feeling. They are echo chambers, in addition to influencing the debate. They are principally echo chambers because they have to sell their newspapers.

BOULTON: It is interesting. It can go too far. For example, in the election campaign, the word liar was slung about about Tony Blair, picked up by some of the newspapers, the pro-Conservative newspapers.

Now, the Conservative Party itself and their own strategists admit that was going too far, that actually the public recoiled at that sort of language.

RODGERS: It ain't pretty, but it's fun.

Melanie, Adam, thanks very, very much.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, women scorned. Dozens of French journalists protest poor pay and work conditions.

Stay with us.


RODGERS: Welcome back.

Overworked and underpaid. It's a common complaint made by journalists around the world. But in France more than 200 female reports at the Agence France Press are timidly taking their grievances further. They've signed a petition protesting inferior salaries and fewer chances of promotion, at least compared with their male counterparts.

AFP management acknowledged the equality problems. So how widespread is this in today's so-called modern media era? To discuss this further I'm joined now by AFP journalists Sylvie Lanteaume; Aidan White, general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists; and, from Paris, by Alison Smale, managing editor of the "International Herald Tribune."

Alison, you work in Paris. How bad is the French problem? Is it egregious or is this more catholic?

ALISON SMALE, "INTL. HERALD TRIBUNE": I have a feeling that it is fairly egregious. You have plenty of prominent women on television, most notably Christine Ockrent, but in newspapering, and certainly at AFP -- I was talking to one of the organizers of the petition earlier today. It does seem to be a problem at the top.

At AFP there is not so much of a problem further down, but there has also been a lot about people recently at "Le Monde," for instance, and an old friend of mine, actually, Sylvie Kaufman (ph), who used to work for AFP, has now emerged as one of the deputy editors of "Le Monde," and that's the first time I believe that a woman has been in such a high position at a newspaper which is very liberal and which, if you look at it through sort of Anglo Saxon eyes, not a popular view often here in France, it is very sort of high bound in its dominance by men.

RODGERS: Sylvie, do Frenchmen, French male journalists, managers, have a problem with woman in their ranks?

SYLVIE LANTEAUME, AGENCE FRANCE PRESS: No, I don't think they have a problem, but it is more subtle. The problem is when you want to apply for a management job, very often you don't have -- they never explain to you, you don't have a right quality or it's a problem of capability. They explain to you that, well, this time we had a better candidate for that assignment or this time this one had a better experience or he was more -- he was older or -- anyway, it is never very (AUDIO GAP).

RODGERS: Are you saying French women journalists face the classic glass ceiling?

LANTEAUME: They do. They do, and that's why we signed this petition. There is a glass ceiling, it is obvious.


AIDAN WHITE, INTL. FEDERATION OF JOURNALISTS: Well, I must say, we should congratulate the woman and the men at AFP who actually brought this to the surface. I mean, in fact, of course, this isn't an AFP problem and it's a French problem. From our perspective around the world, we see that there is a common problem.

There are more and more women coming into journalism. That's a very good thing. But we see that at a certain stage in their career development, they come up against obstacles, and that's because I think within journalism at the highest levels, it is stubbornly male culture that prevails. And that's the glass ceiling.

RODGERS: So we have to wait until the old mossbacks die out for women to get a fair shake?

WHITE: No, I think we actually have to take more action. I think we have to have management which is more sensitive to the problems that women have. I think we have to also have a bit more solidarity within journalism, within the profession. That's why I was very pleased that many male journalists supported this petition by their female colleagues at AFP.

But also I think -- and the evidence shows it -- we also need good regulation in terms of the rights of women in employment and at work. For example, if you look at where the best standards apply, which in Europe tends to be in the Nordic countries, you'll find that there are good laws that give good parental leave rights, which give good facilities, which allow women to be able to equally take part in a 24-hour news process.

RODGERS: Alison, in the 21st century, in the enlightened European Union, how the heck do the French get away with this?

SMALE: I think I would echo Aidan's point, that they're not exactly alone.

And I would also say, you know, you see variations for one era to the next. Talking to some people from AFP, they noted that perhaps the situation today is somewhat worse than it was 10 years ago in terms of senior women. So it is a fluctuating thing.

I do think that actually after the initial sort of breath of women's lib in the 60s and early 70s, across the board, even in the United States, what you have is a slight retrenchment because people think, well, you know, how do I juggle sort of family and this incredibly demanding job. And in truth it is difficult.

Laws that assist that are a big help and managements that are conscious of it are an even bigger help, and that's really the only way that you're going to get to equality.

One thing I would note is that one of the most inspiring occasions that you can go to in journalism is a dinner for women who are awarded courage awards, so-called, from the International Women's Media Foundation in the United States. And it is absolutely amazing always to realize that in little country, Kyrgyzstan, for instance, until recently not exactly in the news, women are the ones that really have the courage to fight the censors, to stand up to the kind of tyrannies in small societies that you don't hear of.

And I think Western managements would do well to heed that quality.

RODGERS: Sylvie, do you agree that women bring something special to the craft, a leavening effect, or is this just about equality?

LANTEAUME: Women bring something special, of course, because we don't have the same way of reacting. For example, we don't have the same way of covering a war, I think. We cover it differently. Even if we give the story, but maybe we have another way of seeing the same view.

I think the only way to get over this situation is a kind of affirmative action. I don't know how we can do that. It's very sensitive. It is something that you don't want to get an assignment because you are a woman. You want to get it because you are better.

RODGERS: That's what I want to ask Aidan. In the United States, you have affirmative action programs. If you encounter this kind of stuff, you sue. Should this be what the AFP female employees are doing? Should they take legal action?

WHITE: I actually don't think these are the sort of problems that are best sorted out in courts of law. I thing they're really well sorted out with good industrial relations which allows a workforce to be able to approach a management, put issues and problems on the table, have a good discussion and sort them out.

Look, in France and in most countries of the European Union, there is a strong political commitment, legal commitment, to equality and rights of women. The problem is at the point of delivery, at the workplace, it's not coming through, and this is certainly true in media. Now I understand the problems in media these days are very difficult. We've seen changing problems in terms of employment rights. There are many more freelancers, there are many editorial budget cuts taking place right across to industry, and unfortunately, the need for investment in this particular area has not been recognized. And what we have to do is we have to stop the invisibility of this problem. We have to bring it into focus and we have to sit down and talk about how we resolve the problems.

RODGERS: Alison, last word to you.

SMALE: Well, I couldn't agree more. I do think industrial relations, good workplace relations, are really more the way to go than sort of mere legal measures, which as we see don't necessarily work.

But the important thing is that many people have had their chance to make their voices heard and we just want this to continue.

RODGERS: Alison, Sylvie, Aidan, thank you so very much.

And briefly, staff at the BBC will stage a series of strikes over the loss of 4,000 jobs. Radio and television news coverage is expected to be the hardest hit. A spokesman for the National Union of Journalists says deep cuts are heavy-handed and rash. BBC management says the cuts will save the corporation more than half a billion dollars within three years.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, representing the innocent. We talk to an award-winning filmmaker about his African mission.

Stay with us.


RODGERS: Welcome back.

He became an African refugee, helped rescue child soldiers in Sierra Leone, and survived for a while on the same meager diet as a group of Ethiopian villagers. During all of this Sorios Samura documented the lives of those around him. The filmmaker is gaining a reputation for a new kind of journalism, real reality TV. His mission is to get close to the action and live it until he has the story.

So, is this the future of journalism? Sorios joins me now to discuss this further.

Sorios, is this brand of journalism of yours practiced best and only in places like Africa, or can it be practiced around the world?

SORIOS SAMURA, FILMMAKER: Well, I mean, over the years we clearly have seen that Africa is one place that hasn't been quite reported as it should be reported. Europe has been covered really well by Europeans and so far America, Asia and even Australia has been covered by Australians.

I think Africa is one place that has never been quite covered properly by even the Western media, you know. The details, the context has always been lacking, and I think to some extent Africa is one place that needs this type of storytelling, but I think it is something that can be covered right across -- it would interest me to see, you know, people telling their own stories. I think that's the bottom line.

RODGERS: So is this unique brand of journalism particularly suited for Africa and the developing world or do you think it's portable?

SAMURA: I think so far Africa is one place that is difficult to cover. Let's be honest. It is extremely difficult, whether you are an African or you are a white Westerner. It is extremely difficult because there are things that, you know, I would want to hear what journalists say about Africa, (INAUDIBLE) and which are real facts. You know, but because of political correctness, because of, you know, all these accusations about racism, there are things that, you know, a white Western journalist won't even dare say.

And, you know, these are some of the things that I can say and get away with because I am an African. I have lived these stories. You know, the poverty, the hunger, you know, talking about HIV/AIDS, male sexuality, our attitude towards sex. You know, these are real things that needed to be said about Africa, but if a white journalist is to point at some of these things, I swear to God, you know, all fingers will be pointing, the blame game will still be played by us Africans.

RODGERS: Do you have a mission? Do you have a philosophy of journalism? Why is it you do what you do?

SAMURA: For me, you know, I've always been (INAUDIBLE) if Africa is going to join, you know, the civilized world, we need to first of all find a voice that will tell the story of Africa the way it should be told and not how the West wants it to be told. You know, we need clear honesty.

For me, you know, there are lots of things happening in Africa. You know, there is poverty, there is hunger, there is AIDS, there is farming. All these things are (INAUDIBLE), you know, very negative things. And I have people that have said to me in the past, you know, you keep telling all these very tough stories, negative stories about Africa, you know, you've got to look for the positive stories. Hey, show me the positive stories and I'll tell them.

RODGERS: What is it you show your viewers in your films?

SAMURA: Well, for me, I let the viewers see the reality, the truth, you know, call things by their proper names.

For me, I want to keep shining the torch light, you know, where the problems are. Even if it is not providing the hope Westerners would want, because people tell you when you want to do the stories, you know, you've got to look for the hope.

The first thing I learned when I started working with the Western media is about how to negotiate between the message and the medium so that, you know, I mix Western TV expectation, but at the same time without shying away from the truth.

RODGERS: What are you most pleased with about what you have been able to show about your native Africa?

SAMURA: I think to some extent I have led people -- like the story about living with hunger. You know, in the past people have almost always told the story as if Africans are helpless, hopeless, dying people, just waiting for handouts. What I have done with some of it stories I've done so far is to get people to see that these people are not just helpless people. They are doing something for themselves.

I have managed to look for the real heroes, and for me, you know, there are lots of people out there in Africa, the ordinary, innocent people, who are heroes.

RODGERS: Sorios Samura, thank you so very much, and congratulation on your excellent work.

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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