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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired May 21, 2005 - 21:00:00   ET


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Nic Robertson. Welcome to a special edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, coming to you from Belfast, Northern Ireland.
I came here this week to report on the start of what will be the biggest mass murder trial in recent Irish and British history. 35-year-old Sean Gerard Hoey is expected to be charged with 29 counts of murder, one for each person killed in the 1998 Omagh bombing.

It was the deadliest single terrorist attack in 30 years of troubles between the provinces Protestants and Catholics. These days Northern Ireland is relatively calm. Politicians still debate the stalled peace process, but it is safe to walk the streets.

For journalists, however, the challenge in reporting what goes on behind the scenes still exists, as does the quest for fairness and accuracy.

To discuss this further, I'm joined by Austin Hunter, editor of one of the world's longest running newspapers, the "Newsletter," and Eamon Mallie, correspondent at Belfast Downtown Radio.

Eamon, if I may begin with you, the Omagh charges expected to be brought next week, seven years almost since the Omagh bombing. Have journalists not been doing their job properly here and digging around the facts and throwing things up in the public limelight?

EAMON MALLIE, BELFAST DOWNTOWN RADIO: I think that charge would be highly challengeable on the grounds that names have been bandied around for a long time in relation to the Omagh bombing.

But that's not enough. It's the job of the police to investigate and to establish the facts. In that particular case, which is now pending a court appearance, et cetera, I have to say that I was rather shocked to find the name of the suspect being bandied around before any court appearance. That seems to be a departure from customary practice here professionally, I thought.

ROBERTSON: Austin, would you find this a long delay, seven years? Would you not have expected journalists to dig a little deeper perhaps? I mean, at the time politicians said nothing will stop justice happening. The families of Omagh, the victims, expected justice. It's taken a long time.

AUSTIN HUNTER, "THE NEWSLETTER": Yes, I agree with Eamon on this one. It's really the job of the police service of Northern Ireland to find the people, to bring them before the courts and, if justice prevails, sentence them.

Journalists have been investigating Omagh for, as you say, quite a number of years. There have been some pretty good documentaries done on it, some very good newspaper reports. But there is only so far you can go without throwing the blame onto someone. People say that everyone knows who bombed Omagh. Well, everyone doesn't know who bombed Omagh. Only a certain number of people probably do, and some journalists may have their sources who tell them this, but let's face it, the best way to deal with it is to get a proper conviction of whoever in court.

ROBERTSON: Do you find this a particularly difficult story to report just because of the nature of the -- a lot of it -- there are some very scurrilous accusations behind the scenes. Has this one been particularly difficult?

HUNTER: Well, the whole Omagh thing has been difficult because people like Eamon and myself live in this community. My mother lives in Omagh. My mother happened to know eight of the people who died in the Omagh bombing and I knew two or three of them.

So journalists in Northern Ireland who live here are never very far away from the story. There have been 3,500 people killed in the troubles and we all know someone. We've all been touched by that. That's often the most difficult thing.

Some of the most difficult journalism in Northern Ireland has been to go out and report on the deaths of people that you know. That's quite a tough thing to do.

ROBERTSON: Have you had that experience -- Eamon.

MALLIE: I think that in situations like this there is always the tendency, because of the scope and scale and range of the reaction to the awfulness of the incident, that people keep pushing at the outer limits in terms of violating the rules of journalism.

For example, in this particular case, because the news leaked out that somebody was going to appear in court, we instantly had people on television belonging to those who were killed in Omagh actually being interviewed. I'm not saying celebrating, but certainly expressing relief that somebody was going to be charged.

This is a departure in terms of journalism here and I think it's because of the environment, of the awfulness, of the horror, that the media, now who are competing so vehemently with each other, they're pushing the barriers, and I think that we're losing site quite often of the standards of journalism as a result of this.

ROBERTSON: Has it been difficult over the years in Northern Ireland, though, to find yourself put in a very emotional position because you have an emotional connection to some incidents?

MALLIE: I suppose as you get older -- when I was a younger reporter, I was a bit like a gun dog, you know, I was a trained gun dog. I was just a terrier, a rottweiler. So emotions scarcely came into it. But as you get older, when you have your own family, when you lose your own parents with the passing of time, I think you become more sensitive to the hurt and the grief of other people.

ROBERTSON: Has there been a tough time over the years of the troubles reporting here?

HUNTER: Well, it definitely has, because we've watched a society that we choose to live in, we've watched it implode upon itself. We've watched lots of violence, lots of damage to our community, the economy being destroyed, and we've all lost loved ones.

And as Eamon says, in the early days of the troubles, the young reports like Eamon and I were in those days, 30 years ago, we just went out and we did the story because we didn't know in the mid-70s that it would still be going on 30 years later. We thought it would all be over. It was very exciting in an awful way. It was a terrible thing, but it was exciting. It was an adrenalin rush. But we didn't know it cause going to last 30 years and let's hope that we never go back to what the older reporters, like Eamon and I, saw in those young days.

MALLIE: I quite recently had an interesting experience 30 years on, and you think you're seasoned and you've gone through it all.

I was still in bed the morning of the marathon here recently in Belfast and my phone rang. There was a very agitated young man at the other end of the line. He said, "Eamon Mallie?"

I said, "That's right."

He said, "Have you got a pen there? Write this down."

Now that guy in 10, 15 seconds imparted a message to me that a bomb had been abandoned on the route of the marathon.

ROBERTSON: We're just talking about a few weeks ago here.

MALLIE: Yes. Now, he gave me the name of the location. I hadn't heard of this location ever before. I hadn't even -- I said I must be clear about the location.

He said, "Just get it down."

He was gone in a flash with a parting shot. "Tell Ord (ph) we'll get him the next time." The chief constable, Hugh Ord (ph), was running in that marathon.

Now there was an instant onus on me to impart that knowledge to the police, to get it out there, so that the area could be cleared.

It transpired that there was a bomb on the route of the marathon. So they got the area cleared and the marathon continued. But there is a follow-on from that. There's an investigation, and I am put in an invidious position arising from that, because the police aren't satisfied with that which I did at the point of time in which I did it, in warning them and conveying the message accurately, to the best of my ability. They're coming back to me now because they want to check phones and all that type of thing.

So those are the sort of situations in which a journalist finds him or herself in in Northern Ireland.

ROBERTSON: You've found yourself in that position here many, many times, because you've been the first to find the location of bodies of people that have been killed --

MALLIE: A lot of times. That's right. In fact, it's amazing the amount of history that was lost as a result of that, because quite often down the years, as practitioners of journalism, we would be given a secret message, maybe from an IRA source or a loyalist source.

If you were caught in possession of that message on the way back to the office, you'd be open to potential prosecution. Certainly you could be deemed to be an accessory, and quite literally I chewed those messages up. I literally, once I did my report on the spot, put the piece of paper with the message that had been given to me and I literally chewed it up and spat it out. Because I had to protect myself against any potential arrests or whatever for withholding information. It was the cost of duty.

So history was lost. Those pieces of paper today in a historical context --

ROBERTSON: Journalists here have had a tremendous amount of experience that reporters in the rest of the world just would never get an opportunity, even in a lifetime of reporting, that has been experienced here, for you, perhaps in a period of 10 years.

What do you think that you can pass on to this younger generation? We're talking here about things being lost already, techniques.

HUNTER: I think the most important thing is accuracy, because the one thing you discover, if you give an accurate report, you can stand over it and that's why people have given them such a good reputation over the years.

If you report something, you go down to the supermarket. You don't fly back to London or fly back to somewhere else. You go down to the supermarket and they tell you whether you were accurate or not. You leave your kids off at school. And people in Northern Ireland are very straight and very simple. They just tell you the truth.

ROBERTSON: Doesn't that put you under a huge pressure, though, to conform to what the people in your community want you to report?

HUNTER: Yes, but it might not always be what they want you to report. They might not like the message. But as long as you can say this is what happened, this is a report of what I saw, and as long as you can stand by your integrity, and that's what I'd say to young reporters. Never lose your integrity, never lose your accuracy. And if you tell the truth, people will accept it. It might be unpalatable to them and they might not like it, but at least they'll say that you're accurate and you're truthful and honest.

MALLIE: There was a bit of a division in terms of how the communities approach the media here. The Protestant (INAUDIBLE) in this committee always had a problem with the media. They saw the media as out to do them down. No matter how hard you tried to be fair and to be accurate in your reporting about the Protestant Unionist community, there was always that allegation and that charge leveled at the media, that the media was shortchanging them.

And you couldn't disabuse them of the fact, no matter what you did. You could not disabuse them that you were actually trying to be fair. And if they would give you the knowledge then you could even be very fair. But that's just the way it was. Nationalists espoused the media much earlier on and I suppose that's part of the reason why the Sinn Fein propaganda machine has been so powerful, because they went with the media.

ROBERTSON: Did you find this problem -- Austin.

HUNTER: I come from the Protestant Unionist community and what Eamon says is absolutely right. The Nationalist community, and in particular Sinn Fein, had their propaganda machine up and running far, far quicker than the Unionist population. And I think it is only in the last three or four years that the Unionist population have really begun to understand the media and try to work with them, and I think Eamon will agree that they have learned and they're working better with the media now, but it's taken them a while to get there.

There is maybe a bit more confidence coming within the Unionist community in Northern Ireland; the recent election results would prove that. But it took them a while to reach that stage.

ROBERTSON: There is one thing, Austin, that has always fascinated me here, that in journalism we talk about fairness and objectivity and reporting down the middle of the road. Yet there are newspapers here that each community will go to that are on separate sides of the divide. How does that work?

HUNTER: Well, I'm editor of the "Newsletter," and you quite rightly say that's one of the oldest papers in the world. We are the pro- Unionist newspaper in Northern Ireland. And I want the "Newsletter" to be the vehicle, the platform for debate within the Unionist community, so that if anyone wants to know what is happening within that community, they can read it in the "Newsletter." And there are other very, very good newspapers that take other particular stances.

But I don't see a problem with that. The readers know what to expect in the "Newsletter." They see the different arguments, and there are lots of arguments going on within Unionists (AUDIO GAP) and there have been over the past two or three years. The difficult thing has been to balance that.

ROBERTSON: But don't (INAUDIBLE) for a paper that crosses the boundaries very, very clearly, that it has broad appeal to both communities.

HUNTER: I'm not sure. There have been attempts at that sort of thing and there are some papers that are very much in one camp or the other, but there are papers that try to cross the boundaries. But the successful ones, the readers know what they're identity is, and I think newspapers are different from broadcasting.

Broadcasting appeals to all of the readers, but as far as newspapers are concerned, we have a particular section that we want to appeal to.

MALLIE: I think that the newspapers currently are going to have a new problem because we've just had elections here in Northern Ireland, and Unionism as such has moved I would say more to the right.

Now, I don't subscribe to this term extremism, that the Protestant Unionist community is becoming more extreme. I don't subscribe to that at all. I think it's standup Unionism. It's Unionism. It's Unionism -- the Unionist electorate simply wants a leadership to stand up against Republicanism. It doesn't mean that they are becoming more militant. I want to disabuse your viewers of that.

But if you're an editor of the "Belfast Telegraph" or of the "Newsletter," and given that Unionism is moving so far to the right at the moment, I just think it's going to be very interesting to see how the "Belfast Telegraph," for example, which is the main evening paper here, which has been vehemently opposed to Ian Peasley (ph) for so many years. What is that paper going to do now to reflect that shift in Unionist opinion in Northern Ireland? Is it still going to try to be a middle of the road paper, which is going to be left behind by the greater electorate in Northern Ireland?

It's been a challenge for editors, like yourself, because your paper has been traditionally pro-middle of the road Ulster Unionism, which is David Trimble's party, which is now just dead on its feet. The Ulster Unionist Party is down to one representative in West Minister. Ian Peasley (ph) has now got nine MPs at West Minister.

So the editors have a big, big decision to make here.

ROBERTSON: They have a huge responsibility as well. One of my colleagues -- we were discussing this last night -- reminded me when he was standing outside where the Good Friday Peace Agreement was being negotiated, discussed, one of the politicians approached him and said, you know, if the journalists weren't outside, if there weren't so many journalists waiting to see a result, we wouldn't feel so much pressure to get the job done.

Have you sense that over the years, particularly through getting the peace process going, that you have such a role to play?

HUNTER: I think all of the media, the broadcasters and the written journalists in Northern Ireland, have a huge role to play. And the people in Northern Ireland are fairly media savvy. They've been under the media spotlight from people like yourself and people from all around the world for many years. They're pretty media savvy. They know what goes on in the media. Many of them know how to make best use of the media for their own reasons.

And we discovered -- Eamon mentioned the election. Our sales just rocket during the election period. People love to read about elections. They love to read about the results and they're fascinated by it.

So the population in Northern Ireland has a huge interest in politics, and therefore we have to try to reflect that back on them.

ROBERTSON: Austin Hunter, Eamon Mallie, I'm sorry, we've run out of time. Thank you very much for joining me.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, the power of the press. Did one sentence in a "Newsweek" article spark scenes like this?

Stay with us.


ROBERTSON: Welcome back.

U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba tried to rattle detainees by flushing a Koran down the toilet. That was the explosive claim made in a recent "Newsweek" article, blamed for inciting deadly riots across the Muslim world.

"Newsweek" apologized, then retracted the story, but the incident has called into question once again the quality of modern journalism.

Did the reporter get the facts wrong or is "Newsweek" being used as a scapegoat for underlying anti-American fury? How should media organizations deal with anonymous sources?

To discuss this controversy further, I'm joined from Jerusalem by Stephen Farrell, correspondent for the "Times of London," and Patrick Cockburn, Baghdad correspondent for Britain's "Independent" newspaper.

Stephen, I'll start with you first. What was your reaction as you watched this story unfold?

STEPHEN FARRELL, "TIMES OF LONDON": Well, it was very obvious right from the beginning to anybody working in this part of the world, in the Muslim world, across the entire region, from Morocco to Indonesia, if you like, that if you are touching on subjects involving the Koran, involving the Prophet Mohammad, you have to tread with extreme sensitivity, and you can never predict when anyone individual issue is going to flare up in to trouble, as this one did.

But it had all the ingredients of it, and obviously we watched with horror as it went from verbal scandal to physical violence and the deaths of innocent people.

ROBERTSON: Patrick, you're no stranger either to sensitive issues. You just won the Martha Gelhorn (ph) Award in journalism, essentially for going against the grain, if you will, and reporting perhaps what others won't report or taking a different view, certainly.

How would you have tackled this very, very sensitive issue?

PATRICK COCKBURN, "INDEPENDENT": I probably wouldn't have tackled it much differently. I mean, the "Newsweek" reporter who did this has a very high reputation.

But the one thing I always try ti keep in mind over Iraq is that it's such an explosive crisis, that if you get anything wrong, even if you're generally right -- and I think the "Newsweek" coverage was generally right -- then somebody is going to jump on you. This was just half a sentence, 10 words, and if you leave the door open for criticism there, certainly in the United States and Britain, the government is going to jump on you, so one has to be even more careful than usual.

ROBERTSON: Leaving the door open in this context, is that using a single anonymous source? Should journalists be examining and evaluating how this is done?

COCKBURN: Well, first of all, there isn't much alternative to that. I think that one also has to bear in mind, which I do these days, that one is vulnerable to an anonymous source setting one up. I'm not saying this happened in this case, but I always worry in something that is so divisive as the Iraq crisis, that somebody is telling me nine things that are true and one thing that is untrue, that I'm being setup.

ROBERTSON: Stephen, how do you decipher what your sources are telling you, if it's true and accurate, and how would you go with -- would you go with a single source?

FARRELL: Well, it's a very controversial issue. In many stories, you do, day in and day out. You will find yourself, if you have an extremely good source, you won't necessarily think about second guessing him or her. I mean, for argument's sake, if you're sitting in the middle of Iraq and there is a story about Saddam, is he going to appear in court the next day, and you ring up somebody very senior within the prison's administration, the number one guy, and say is he, and he definitively says to you no, then you don't bother necessarily ringing up the number two and three and four and getting a second source.

But the difference with this is that that isn't an inflammatory subject. This is a potentially very, very, very dangerous subject to get into. And there are certain stories, certain subjects, where the alarm bells are ringing right from the minute, where you start to research them.

ROBERTSON: Patrick, what is your feeling? Are more mistakes being made? Are journalists under greater pressure and therefore slipping up more often?

COCKBURN: No, I don't think so. I think, as Stephen just said, there have always been errors. I mean, famous errors in British journalism of massacre of all the British diplomats in Peking almost sank the "Daily Mail" 18 or 19 years ago.

But just to go back to the "Newsweek" article, was it a single source? I mean, the story about the desecration of the Koran had been in the papers, various people who had been at Guantanamo and in a position to know had referred to this in the past. It wasn't as though this was a shot that came out of nowhere.

So I can see why they were confident about it, and they did run it past the Pentagon, which didn't object, didn't point a finger at it.

ROBERTSON: Stephen, just briefly, how would you expect, how would you look toward, to "Newsweek," to redeem this situation, if you will?

FARRELL: Well, I think I wouldn't presume to advise "Newsweek" what to do. What I will say is that there is a fairly wide consensus of opinion across the Arab and Muslim world, from the papers and TV reports that I've been studying over the last few days, that suggests they simply do not believe this retraction and I don't know what "Newsweek" can do to make them believe their version events. Clarity and absolute disclosure of all of the facts is obviously the first step on the way down that road.

ROBERTSON: Patrick, just ever so briefly, again, do you think that there is something "Newsweek" should be doing here to redeem the situation? Or should they just carry on?

COCKBURN: I think the one thing they shouldn't do, which often happens to media organizations in these circumstances, is to become a mute and noncontroversial in the future. One of the results of this type of episode in the past is whatever media organization, whether it's in the United States or Britain or elsewhere, has come under attack, suddenly it decides to be very goody-goody in the future, report nothing controversial, and that's the worst thing that could come out of this particular episode.

ROBERTSON: Patrick, on that note, thank you very much, in London. And Stephen Farrell, in Jerusalem, thank you 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 Nic Robertson, in Belfast, thanks for joining us.



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