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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired June 11, 2005 - 21:00:00   ET


BILL NEELY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Bill Neely, 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 in Sudan; not literally, because for journalists it's incredibly difficult to obtain a visa to travel there. Africa has dominated the headlines this week. We've heard about poverty, next month's G8 Summit, debt relief, and Bob Geldolf's Live8 concert plans, all undoubtedly news-worthy topics.

But what about the violence and the killings in Sudan? Well, there have been two developments there this week. The International Criminal Court has confirmed it will investigate allegations of war crimes and genocide and peace talks were due to resume after a six-month gap. Both have received scant coverage? Why? And what more should the media be doing?

Well, to discuss this further I'm joined by CNN's chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, and the BBC's Martin Plaut, who has just returned from Sudan.

Thanks very much for joining us.

Christiane, let me start with you. Some regimes put up lots of barriers to stop journalists going in. What's been your experience?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: With the Sudanese government, we attempted to get into Darfur for many, many months and we were successful last year. Last August we got a visa.

So I went in with a team of my colleagues from CNN. We had already been to Chad, we had done the whole dramatic situation from the point of view of the refugees who were escaping, but we wanted obviously to go to Darfur, which was incredibly difficult.

And the reason I make a point of having been in last August is that I can't get in now and I've been trying since last August. We've been trying through the government, obviously. It's the only way to go. Through NGOs, through the United Nations. We thought we had a visa with the United Nations, and they keep telling us that it's here, but the Sudanese embassy here in London seems to have no knowledge of this.

So it is a very difficult job, very difficult, trying to persuade the authorities to let us in, and, of course, that's a shame, it's a pity, because we really need to be in there.

NEELY: And some regimes, of course, do this. How does Sudan rank in that list? I mean, let's take Iraq, Zimbabwe, North Korea. Where does Sudan stand?

AMANPOUR: Well, Iraq is now, of course, very, very open. Zimbabwe was open for the elections. North Korea is very, very closed. Sudan, you know, it's allowed some journalists in periodically, and, as I said, it allowed us in last year, and it's certainly allowed the BBC and others to follow Secretary-General Kofi Annan on other U.N. missions.

It's very selective, that's the problem. It's very, very selective. And for those of us who are keen to put Africa on the agenda, to actually give some attention to Africa, which is another very difficult thing to do, and particularly a story like Sudan, it's very frustrating, because as news people we feel that we should be there.

NEELY: Martin, you've just come back. How difficult was it, not just to get in, but once you were there, did you feel you were censored in any way?

MARTIN PLAUT, BBC: Well, no, because I was with Wendy Chamberlain (ph), who is the acting head of the UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, and so in a sense on her coattails. We had access anywhere we wanted to go.

The only trouble with that kind of visit is that it's very, very brief. You are there for a couple of days in each place, and you have to go behind the official visit and the official delegation, so getting to meet ordinary people is always difficult. But it has been possible to get in.

The other thing I would say, of course, is the BBC does actually have some people on the ground permanently. We have Alfred Taban (ph), a southern Sudanese, he's been in Khartoum for many years. And he's reported for many, many years for us, and he does a fantastic job.

We now have another correspondent who is based in Khartoum. But, again, getting out of Khartoum, as you say, is the big problem. Because for them to then travel is difficult.

NEELY: Has this story been underreported? The United Nations calls it the gravest humanitarian crisis on earth. Have we underreported it?

PLAUT: I think we have. I think it is absolutely central. I mean, that and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

When literally millions of people have died -- I mean, I think anyone who talks about figures is just, you know, it's nonsense. Nobody has any idea how many people have died. The estimates go up to 300,000 in Darfur, and it may even be higher. We don't know.

So on the scale of things, the suffering has been appalling. It's gone on for now at least two years and, you know, really, we just haven't given it the attention it deserves.

NEELY: Christiane, is that justified? Because, of course, for most of the time that Darfur was going on, events there, we had the Iraq War, we chose.

AMANPOUR: You know, of course, it's not justified, because terrible violations of human rights are going on there and, as Martin said, in the Congo, and in many other places where our spotlight should be shining. It's very, very difficult to do. As Martin outlined, in some ways you can do it, on certain people's coattails.

Iraq has taken up a huge amount of news organizations' resources and their attention. But that, I don't think, is an excuse. I think Africa has always got short-shrift by the mainstream media. BBC has had a lot of correspondents based all over the world. They have a huge network, of course, with their local hires, with their BBC World Surface Radio. We also have correspondents in Africa, based in Africa. We're among the few organizations who do have correspondents based there.

But it's still difficult to get into certain countries, and once you get into the capital, it's difficult because you need further written permission to get out into the hinterlands.

I think, very crucially, though, we have to keep making noise about it, if you get my drift. We have to keep reporting it, whether we're there or not. For instance, Nicholas Cristoff (ph), of the "New York Times." When he can get in, he reports it. And when he can't get in, he reports it. But he's a columnist. He actually can write about it based on what he hears, what people tell him, his sources, and it's a dramatically worthwhile service that he's providing, because he is keeping that issue alive, even when he can't get in or we can't get in.

But Africa in general has received short-shrift and scant attention from the Western media. And that shouldn't be so. And we should be doing a lot more to cover Africa.

NEELY: And I'm reminded, of course, how difficult it is, especially for television, to actually accurately capture these things. Rwanda, we know what happened there. Up to a million people massacred.

If there is one piece of television footage that shows from a very great distance two people being macheted, it's very, very difficult, especially in a place like Darfur, which is vast, to get anywhere near this, isn't it?

PLAUT: Absolutely. I mean Darfur is the size of France. Sudan is the size of Western Europe. You know, the scale is so enormous and the tragedies are so intense, and they happen in very localized communities. They're not massive movements of troops. You're talking about, you know, perhaps 20, 30 men arriving in a village on horseback with camels, attacking a place. Maybe one plane goes over, throws out a few bombs.

But it happens quickly. You know, in an hour, you know, you can have a few hundred people dead. This is what's actually happening. It's not something where you can say, well, you can see the columns of troops coming down the road. It doesn't work like that.

NEELY: Can I ask you, I'm not trying to put you on the spot -- well, I suppose I am trying to put you on the spot. How many times have you actually come across the Janjaweed in Sudan?

PLAUT: I personally have never come across the Janjaweed. In fact, the only group of troops that I did come across while I was there were some troops from the other side, from the rebels, who happened to be coming across the border. It was right on the border with Chad, the kind of places that Christiane's been to. They were coming across the border and going to operate there.

NEELY: What about the more general criticism of, let's say, Human Rights Watch, that we, as Western journalists, to put it crudely, care more about mass death if it's of white people, in Europe, for example, Bosnia, than we do in Africa. Is that justified?

AMANPOUR: I think criticism is justified. I think there is a certain lack of regard for Africa in general, and to be honest, I think the attention that is being put on Africa now, not as much Darfur but certainly the poverty in Africa, because of the G8, because of the Live8 concerts, because of Blair and Brown and the end poverty agenda, I think that's a good thing, and I hope it spurs some further reporting.

And, you know, we have a duty as well. We must try to do these things. Remember, it was 11 years ago that Rwanda was allowed to descend into a genocidal carnage, and we really weren't there en masse while that was happening, and we should have been. And because we didn't really shine our spotlight as much as we could have done and perhaps we did in Bosnia, it really allowed the politicians to avert their gaze. It allowed them not to do what they had to do, and they've apologized since. They've had to apologize for ignoring and failing in their duty to stop what was going on in Rwanda.

So the burden is very clear. The responsibility is very clear. We have to keep trying, and we do keep trying, and we try to do it whichever way we can, from inside, from outside, from on the borders, whichever way we can.

NEELY: Martin, you eat, drink and breathe Africa. Does it frustrate you, when you know that something is going on, to see it on page 26, or maybe not even in the newspapers?

PLAUT: Well, you know, I've been working on Africa now for the best part of 25 years, and when I started every single major newspaper in Britain had at least three correspondents in Africa. You had West, East and South Africa. Now you're lucky if you have one correspondent dealing with the whole of Africa. And, worse than that, if you take someone like the "Financial Times," used to have a Middle Eastern Africa page, it's now the Middle East page. Africa has disappeared off the general radar.

So what happens when I come up and say, look, this is a big story? All my editors say, well, you know, we haven't heard anything about it. It's very difficult. You've got to sell the story every time, from zero. And that is very, very frustrating.

NEELY: And, Christiane, of course, if you're not there, the world is blind.

AMANPOUR: Yes, it is. Of course, there are the NGOs, there are the Human Rights Watch, there are people who are still ringing the bell and trying to send out the warning signals, but you're right. If we're not there, the world is sort of shut off from these important events, and I think really people do need to know about it.

NEELY: Christiane, thank you very much. Martin Plaut, thank you very much, indeed.

Well, up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, a musical ringleader's very own media circus. We look at the coverage of the Michael Jackson trial.

Stay with us.


NEELY: Welcome back.

Weird, wacky, freaky and even flaky, but undeniably talented. Michael Jackson has been called many a name, but as we tape this show Friday he stands accused of something far more serious, child molestation.

Now, whatever the verdict, the trial itself has been nothing short of a media circus. For more than three months, journalists from around the world have taken up residence in the small California town of Santa Maria. But with cameras barred from the court, there's been a shortage of compelling pictures and only a handful of reporters have been allowed inside every day.

So how has the media covered what's been billed as the highest profile celebrity trial since O.J. Simpson's?

To discuss this further, I'm joined by John Daniszewski, London bureau chief for the "Los Angeles Time," and by Bryan Alexander, the London bureau chief for "People" magazine.

Bryan, let me start with you. Too much coverage?

BRYAN ALEXANDER, "PEOPLE": I don't think so. This is a fascinating trial and you're dealing with the King of Pop, a man of universal stature. People all over the world have grown up listening to his albums, watching this man every step of the way. So as we hit this final chapter -- or what could be his final chapter, I think the world wants to know what next for Michael Jackson.

And the idea of a media circus, I agree, there have been some bizarre moments, but a lot of that has come from the man himself, Michael Jackson. I mean, he is a curious fellow who shows up to court one day in his pajamas. That's going to lead to a circus-like atmosphere.

NEELY: Trial reconstructions, is all of that really justified for what is terrible for the victims, there is no question about that, but this isn't a murder case, is it?

ALEXANDER: No, but the -- yes, the reconstruction is something that I think certainly takes a little bit of an entertainment element and pushes it to that. But, once again, you are dealing with somebody who the world cares about passionately. There are fans from all over the world who have traveled out to L.A. to show their support for Michael Jackson. And, likewise, there are people all over the world that are going to want to know what happens in this trial. So that's why the interest.

NEELY: John, what about that? I mean, this man is a cultural phenomenon. He's an economic superstar. There are all sorts of reasons why the world should be interested in this case. To you think there's been too much or too little coverage?

JOHN DANISZEWSKI, "LOS ANGELES TIME": Well, I think any more would be too much. I think we're verging on the excessive and I worry that these sorts of big infotainment trials are distracting people's attention from more serious issues in the world.

Granted, we all know Michael Jackson, and because he's such a celebrity we all feel we know him. So there is a sort of a tendency to want to know what's going to happen to him next and so on, but, really, if he wasn't a celebrity would this trial merit even one paragraph in a newspaper?

And I do think the judge in this case has done a pretty good job of keeping the proceedings dignified and preventing excesses by not allowing TV cameras into the courtroom. So it hasn't been as bad as some people predicted before the trial. But it's still, you just have to wonder, is the public really being served.

NEELY: There can't be anyone in the courtroom who didn't know right from the beginning who Michael Jackson was, from the judge down. Has he therefore had a fair trial? Is the media coverage giving him, if you like, a fair trial?

DANISZEWSKI: Well, I think it -- you have to wonder whether or not the jurors are seeing any of this coverage. They're not supposed to watch it, but they haven't been sequestered either. So insofar as there has been speculation about whether he is guilty of innocent in the media, that conceivably could be influencing the jurors, but we don't know.

I do think both sides have been heard. There's been a lot of testimony out there to raise reasonable doubt in some people's minds, so we'll just have to wait and see, but I don't think the media coverage itself has prevented him from having a fair trial. At least from what I can tell at this distance.

NEELY: Bryan, of course, when we talk about media coverage, and you mentioned the O.J. Simpson trial, that was televised and there were some hugely dramatic moments, like the trying on of the glove. And some people said there was a lot of showboating that did influence the course of the trial.

What about the televising of trials? Should the Jackson trial have been televised?

ALEXANDER: Well, that is interesting, and my own personal opinion is the fact that it wasn't televised has been able to keep a cap on some of the craziness that came out in the O.J. Simpson trial. It's kept it from sort of running away from itself.

I think the judge in this case has really run a tight ship, and one of the first things he did was say no television cameras. That takes a little bit of the circus element out of it right away, and Michael Jackson is an automatic circus element. So to be able to keep a cap on that, I thought that was a smart move, although working for "People" magazine, clearly, interest in the trial would have been greater if it had been televised.

NEELY: So it directly effects the interest of your readers.

ALEXANDER: Right. I think as people watch a trial, they get drawn into the day by day of what's going on, whether they're initially interested in it or not, it becomes a saga that they begin to watch and follow, and without that I think there's been sort of a tapering of interest.

While I would feel that some of the people we've actually seen in court have been interesting, I don't feel like we've been caught up in terms of testimony, sort of DNA testimony and long, grueling days going over facts and figures. I thought it has been very interesting, but there has been sort of a dip in the public interest in terms of watching this.

NEELY: John, I'm assuming you've got no regrets that there were not cameras in this court, especially since so many of the people who have appeared are very young.

DANISZEWSKI: Well, I think, as I said, it has kept the whole trial in perspective, not having the cameras in.

As a journalist, you don't want to be advocating closed courtrooms. You want to have maximum transparency, so I guess I'm a little bit of two minds about the question. But I guess what I really dislike is, again, the idea of, you know, if the accusations are true, a tragic case. Or we can look at any number of other trials, the Scott Peterson case, the other investigations in the past, O.J. Simpson, where they sort of lose there role as a judicial proceeding and become a sort of nightly TV entertainment show, and something about that doesn't sit right with me.

NEELY: Bryan, did the TV networks get their money's worth out of this trial?

ALEXANDER: I think there's been a lot of dead time where there is nothing really to report, and thus as a result you have talking heads kind of going back and forth, saying, well, they took a hit on this side of the fence, took a hit. And I don't think that serves anyone well because what you're really looking at is a trial as a whole and you shouldn't really be looking at it on a day by day basis.

NEELY: From the network's point of view, though, this isn't the trial of the century. It wasn't -- it didn't live up to its promise, did it?

ALEXANDER: Well, I don't think so in terms of just strictly public interest. I mean, the O.J. Simpson trial will always be seared into most people's minds as being the trial. I don't think this will ever surpass this.

But, then again, I think it has been an interesting and significant trial, as for as I can see.

NEELY: Bryan Alexander, John Daniszewski, thank you very much for coming in.

Well, up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, the final report. Fleet Street bids farewell to it's most famous residents.

Stay with us.


NEELY: Welcome back.

They drank, they smoked, they gossiped, and occasionally they wrote the odd story or two. Reporters were to London's Fleet Street what monkeys are to the jungle. For hundreds of years, the central London boulevard was the home of British journalism. But now the so-called Street of Shame has lost its last news heavyweight.

Malacca Kapur (ph) reports.


MALACCA KAPUR (ph), CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's the end of an era for Reuters. After 66 years at 85 Fleet Street, an iconic building designed by Edward Lutchins (ph), the company is moving out and into a spanking new building in London's Canary Warf.

PETER COPLEY, REUTERS: Clearly it's a sad day that we are leaving Fleet Street. But news has no longer been produced on Fleet Street for a number of years. And that includes Reuters. So the news connection is very much an historic fact.

KAPUR (ph): The exodus began in 1985 when Rupert Murdock took on the print unions by moving his news international operations to Wopping (ph) in East London.

JIM ALLAN, JOURNALIST: All the newspapers have left. The "Express,", "Telegraph," you know, Reuters are now going, the "Mail," the "Mirror,", "Times." They've all gone.

KAPUR (ph): Where Reuters was, UBS will be. Where the "Telegraph" was is where Goldman Sachs is.

According to Jim Allan, who started his journalism career on Fleet Street as an office boy for the Press Association, the street just isn't what it used to be.

ALLAN: This along here was full of newsprint lories delivering bails of paper to the "Express" and to the back of the "Telegraph."

KAPUR (ph): One piece of history that hasn't been replaced are the waterholes.

ALLAN: Lunchtime meetings and if you were on the late shift, you would just go to a pub, tell the night news editor where you would be, and if you were needed he'd call you, hopefully before you were inebriated.

KAPUR (ph) (on camera): How often would you come here?

ALLAN: Twice a day.

KAPUR (ph) (voice-over): That's where journalists went to talk about stories, scandals and other things making news on what was dubbed the Street of Shame. Walking down it 45 years after he first came here, Jim is nostalgic.

ALLAN: I spent the best part of my life here. It was a great part of my life. And it's one you never forget and one I'm grateful for.

KAPUR (ph): Malacca Kapur (ph), CNN, London.


NEELY: Banks taking over Fleet Street. Outrageous. Whatever next.

Well, 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 Bill Neely. Thanks very much for joining us.



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