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Coverage of Iranian Election

Aired June 25, 2005 - 21:00:00   ET


WALTER RODGERS, HOST: 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 the scramble for the Iranian presidency, or rather the clamor by journalists to find out what's going on there. Billed by some as the day of destiny, Friday's unprecedented runoff election is arguably one of the more difficult stories in the world to cover. Just getting a visa to travel to Iran is no easy feat. Already several Iranian newspapers have been shutdown for publishing a candidate's letter critical of the election.

But on the flip side, the rise of Internet blogging has given thousands a voice, a voice often denied by Iran's state-owned media.

Joining me now to discuss this further is Christopher Hitchens, contributing editor at "Vanity Fair" magazine; in London, Iranian journalist Amir Taheri; and Alex Vatanka, who has written extensively about Iran.

Amir, Christopher Hitchens has written that the Iranian election was a sham. Was it?

AMIR TAHERI, IRANIAN JOURNALIST: By the standards of Western democratic elections, yes, but we must understand what this election is about. It is an election within the same ruling establishment in order to divide the power and privileges.

It is like if you had in the Soviet era under Stalin, instead of killing people and purging them, people like (INAUDIBLE) holding an election and eliminating them from power through elections.

So this is a substitute for bloody purges, which we saw within the regime in the early stages of its existence, but it is not an election to which the majority of Iranian people have genuine access in the form of having their own candidates, having their own political parties at all.

It is like a primary in the American Democratic or Republican parties, and so far it has helped the regime avoid bloodshed, avoid bloody purges. Suddenly, you know, a whole faction is thrown out without anybody getting killed, without anybody being jailed, and another faction takes over.

This time the showdown is, of course, much more severe than the previous times.

RODGERS: Alex, do you agree that the pretense of a democratic election is worth it?

ALEX VATANKA, JOURNALIST: Let's just remember over a thousand candidates were disqualified. Eight individuals were pretty much handpicked by the regime to have these elections to take place. I mean, that tells you a bit about sort of measuring these elections against international standards.

I have just, as I said, spent two weeks traveling in Iran, and one of the things that was quite clear was that a lot of people are basically asking the question why vote. What's in it for us. I mean, essentially, at the end of the day the big decisions are still decided by the Supreme Leader, who is not elected. So why vote.

RODGERS: Christopher, Amir says you're right, it's a sham, but it's a useful sham. Do you agree?

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, "VANITY FAIR": Well, you know, as they say about hypocrisy, it's the compliment advice pays to virtue.

The Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council could, of course, just rule out the Taliban, but they don't dare do that. They have to pretend to have an election. It's an "as if" country, as I say in my piece.

Many Iranians live that way all the time. They act as if they lived in a free country. They are not really allowed to listen to foreign broadcasts or get access to foreign information, but they all can or mostly can and they mostly do. They have increasingly I would say Westernized and secular aspirations.

And I don't know whether we can count those who didn't go to the polls as having registered a vote by doing that or not. I don't know whether my fellow panelists have an opinion on this, but when I was there in February most of the people I met said they absolutely would not vote. They wouldn't dignify it. They didn't want to give this pretense any credibility.

RODGERS: Amir, you suggested it was a useful safety valve. Do you really think this election, however much it involved pretense, was a safety valve that forestalled bloodshed?

TAHERI: Well, it forestalled bloodshed within the regime and civil war. The problem with Iran is that this regime is isolated. It is disliked by a majority of Iranians. But at the same time, no credible opposition to it has taken shape so far. And the many, many different opposition groups have different strategies, fighting among themselves, spending more energy attacking one another rather than the regime.

So what do you have? You know, we can't have suddenly a vacuum. I prefer that this regime settles its scores in this way rather than in a Stalinist way or like what Mao Zedong did in China with mass purges or like the Khmer Rouge did that. Unfortunately, though we are in that situation in Iran. I hate it, but this is the reality.

RODGERS: Christopher, why does the Iranian government even bother to invite in foreign journalists?

HITCHENS: Well, again, it's my "as if" principal. It's not unlike an old joke from the Soviet Union. You know, we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.

Formally speaking, Iran considers itself to be a democracy. Therefore, you have to have a press department and so on. But, mind you, unless you're very lucky as a journalist in Iran, you are followed and monitored a great deal. I managed to avoid that myself, but I have many colleagues who couldn't shake the gruesome minder.

Look, this is not just a matter for Iran, I think we ought to emphasize. It's of the first importance, because very crucial negotiations are going on between Iran, the European Union and the United States on the nuclear question. It's really of vast importance that we stress we want to negotiate with a government that we can be sure speaks for the Iranian people. We have an interest in this too.

And it's outrageous, really, that they can come up with a candidate like Mr. (INAUDIBLE), who claims suddenly to be a populist and wants to distribute money to the poor because Iran is shielding itself from its misrule, unfortunately, by the high oil price that we allow.

This is a whole skein of matters that are intimately connected and make it important, remind us, shall we say, why democracy is important to begin with, because it makes the life of the international community easier if we can be sure that regimes reflect the will of their people. And this is so conspicuously not the case in Iran that I think we should really refuse to make even the most grudging concessions to the idea that this was a real election.

RODGERS: Amir, let me ask you, for a reporter working in Iran, covering the election, how much self-censorship does one have to exercise to cover the story? And can you cover it fairly?

TAHERI: A lot of self-censorship, because they will seize and close your newspaper and throw you in jail. So, of course, you can't pretend that you are in a free society covering a democratic election.

But nevertheless, I think the Iranian press has been able, despite its restrictions, to show part of the truth, which is there is a big power struggle going on within the regime. There are two visions within the regime. One wants to transform Iran into a Chinese model, if you like, (INAUDIBLE) which means capitalism in the economy and authoritarian rule in politics. The other one wants to transform Iran into North Korea, putting walls around it.

And they are two different scenarios. Both of them are unsavory to me and to a majority of Iranian people. But there is a real choice and the Iranian media is, I think, cleverly and courageously putting it out.

RODGERS: Amir, Alex, thank you very much. Christopher, thank you very much for some very enlightening discussion.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, the perils of mixing media ownership with politics.

Stay with us.


RODGERS: Welcome back.

He's a father, a football fan, media mogul and Italy's prime minister. Sylvio Berlusconi is undoubtedly one powerful man. But it's the two latter titles that made him the subject of a documentary on the hazards of putting media and government power in the same hands.

"Citizen Berlusconi" has been screened around the world, but not in Italy. So far, it's been banned. Filmmakers say this undermines the foundation of democracy, a point reiterated by the group Reporters Without Borders, which ranks Italy behind all other European nations on its freedom of the press index.

To discuss these issues further I'm joined here in London by the films author, Andrea Cairola and, from Boston, the film's director, Susan Gray.

How grave are the threats, Andrea, to freedom of the press and freedom of speech in Berlusconi's Italy?

ANDREA CAIROLA, "CITIZEN BERLUSCONI": In our movie we have been trying to investigate what it means to work as a journalist nowadays in the so-called Italian anomaly, where, as you said, the prime minister is also the media tycoon and the richest man in Italy.

And we have been around the country interviewing both very famous, respected journalists and, like, less famous journalists, and what is our conclusion is that there is a strong pressure -- it's not in the classical terms, of course, of, I mean, a physical threat, but this pressure is rather a more subtle pressure. In some ways there is an intimidation which is an influence in some way which is threatening, for instance, of course, journalists to have a career as often, especially in television, to accept certain rules, to self-censor.

RODGERS: Susan, how badly is the Italian journalistic establishment being squeezed by Mr. Berlusconi?

SUSAN GRAY, "CITIZEN BERLUSCONI": We found in our research that we were actually witnessing it firsthand. We had problems getting the film shown not only on television but in film festivals, and a lot of the times we would find out from colleagues that things as simple as reviews of the film were getting censored or taken off the air.

So we also had a problem with the archive of the film. We were trying to just tell a story about how the man who controls the media also controls the political power. And a lot of that took place on Italian television. And unfortunately getting a hold of the public television's images of this very public figure was something that we were denied. We weren't even allowed to buy the images.

RODGERS: Andrea, does Mr. Berlusconi publish the media which criticizes him? Does he seek revenge on people?

CAIROLA: There were cases in which in some way Mr. Berlusconi sacked, for instance Enso Viagi (ph), who was one of the most respected Italian journalists and he has been working for (INAUDIBLE) primetime public broadcasting and actually three years ago he said that this person, this journalist, was using television in a criminal way and to follow up on that the Italians haven't seen any longer this person on the screen. A little bit like if Larry King would be fired because President Bush says that.

But at the same time, Berlusconi is owning the largest publishing house of the country and, for instance, is publishing also some books, some pamphlets, that are critical of him. We interviewed Paul Ginser (ph), one of the most important historians, about Italy, and actually his book as been published by Renaldi (ph), which is owned by Montedori (ph), which is owned by Berlusconi as a holding.

But as Mr. Ginser (ph) told us, it couldn't be less liberal when it comes to speak about television.

RODGERS: Susan, let me ask you. I spoke with a friend in Rome yesterday preparatory to this and she told me that Berlusconi is manipulating the Italian media in ways that are reminiscent of Mussolini. Now, is this just the Italian left ringing its hands, or is there a parallel here?

GRAY: I think using Mussolini is maybe going a little too far. But I do think that there is a real threat to democracy. I mean, that was the conclusion of our film. Whoever controls the media, whoever controls information ultimately controls the message and how voters vote. And you can have democracy, as we conclude in the film, as an empty shell, and that's what is going on in Italy. It's a real political game, who controls the media.

You have to understand that in Italy it's always been a political game. There have been three public televisions that were sort of divvied out to the Communists, the Socialists and the Christian Democrats, and it was a gentleman's agreement that there would be pluralism, many voices through having this system.

Berlusconi came along and he didn't follow the gentleman's agreement. He put his people into all three channels. So he's controlling the message in the public realm and he's controlling the message in the private realm through his three channels that he set up, and that's 90 percent of Italian television, where most Italians get their news. That's a very dangerous situation.

RODGERS: Andrea, that's scary. What's to be done?

CAIROLA: It's interesting that, of course, there are journalists that keep on doing their job in Italy in a professional way, keep on investigating, even if now they are confined (INAUDIBLE).

But it's interesting that recently they were administering the election in most of the Italian regions and actually Berlusconi's coalition, the center right coalition, lost in 13 out of 15 regions. So in some ways, it seems like Italian society, Italian people, is in some way developing some antibodies, despite, as said, this huge control of, like, most of the Italian television. It seems that things are changing. And next year, next summer, 2006, there will be election where Berlusconi will be either confirmed or out of office.

RODGERS: Andrea, Susan, an alarming picture you paint. Thank you very much, both of you.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, love and marriage? Or just a ploy to sell cinema tickets. We look at the entertainment story of the week.

Stay with us.


RODGERS: Welcome back.

Rich, famous, and filling the front pages as well as our cinema scenes. Tom Cruise, it appears, is the man of the moment.

His engagement to actress Katie Holmes was a gift from the gods for the entertainment media, timed nicely to coincide with the pair's latest respective films.

So, is it true love or just an extravagant publicity stunt? How sophisticated, really, is the celebrity PR machine? Can it con the public, or are the public becoming more skeptical? And how do entertainment journalists differentiate between fact and fiction?

To help us unravel this mystery, I'm joined by Bryan Alexander, London bureau chief for "People" magazine, and celebrity public relations expert Mark Borkowski.

Mark, question to you. 60 percent of the American public say they think this engagement is a publicity stunt. What are we to think?

MARK BORKOWSKI, CELEBRITY PR GURU: I don't think it is a publicity stunt. I think Tom Cruise represents probably one of the last of a generation of showmen. He's always, it seems, every film that he does, he'll turn up on the red carpet. I think there is a great fear now amongst many celebrities that, you know, it's not a place to come. England is full of tabloid journalists who are going to sort of feed off their reputation.

Tom puts that to the side. Many people are happy to stay in North America and not travel across the water to help promote a film. If you look back 50 or 60 years ago, you had to do it. You had to work really hard to promote a film. And Tom Cruise is looked at microscopically with his relationships and what he does on the basis of is this a publicity stunt.

Well, it's not, because he's just doing what his forefathers did in terms of helping to promote a product.

RODGERS: Bryan, art form or true love?

BRYAN ALEXANDER, "PEOPLE": That's hard to say. I mean, there is a lot of cynicism out there, and that's perfectly understandable given that this whole relationship has pretty much come to light as two movies are coming out, both of which of the two main people involved in this relationship. So, yes, people are pretty cynical about where this has come from.

But, you've got to say, the guy is stepping up to the plate. Whether this is a publicity stunt or not, he's getting engaged and he's going to get married, so there is something to be said there.

RODGERS: I also saw a poll that said a lot of people didn't think the marriage would come about, that it was just a media engagement.

Let me ask you this, there's a whole subculture in journalism out there, Hollywood media or celebrity journalists. How does that differentiate from political reporting and other reporting?

ALEXANDER: Well, possibly that we are not digging too deeply to figure out what's really going on here. The fact of the matter is, Tom Cruise is saying I'm in love with this girl. She's saying I'm in love Tom. They've run around. They make beautiful pictures. It makes a fantastic story and our readers want to know about it. So are we really looking too deeply into whether or not this is true love? I don't think there is that sort of criticism there.

RODGERS: Mark, finish this sentence for me. If you really think you know something about a Hollywood star -- finish the sentence.

BORKOWSKI: That's a role, really, of how in demand an A list celebrity is. To a certain extent it's an interesting question about somebody in political life and entertainment sort of life, is how fast and how quick the media will go to expose that sin or that anomaly in his life.

Tom Cruise is needed and wanted because he plays the game. He will promote things. He has a gorgeous sort of fianc‚e on his arm. He's had lots of very beautiful women on his arm. People are not there to shoot the golden goose. As long as he actually carries on doing this stuff, as long as he is carried on and needed by the media, then perhaps a few blind eyes will be drawn.

But as I say to a lot of my clients, you know, if there are skeletons in the cupboard, you know, sooner or later they'll come out. They might be held back, but who, you know, is going to take the lead on destroying something, you know, killing off this golden goose.

RODGERS: Bryan, do studios still arrange Hollywood marriages? Or is this something --

ALEXANDER: No, certainly not to that effect. I mean, this is all Tom, all Tom's decision. I mean, Tom has always happened to have brought about beautiful women just about the time when he is about to promote a movie. Oftentimes the timing is pretty hard to beat.

RODGERS: You're saying it's contrived.

ALEXANDER: No. I just happen to be pointing out a very simple fact there.

BORKOWSKI: He's got the stuff. You see, he's got the stuff. He's not frightened. He enjoys the media. He's got a second sense. He understands the (INAUDIBLE). He knows what actually takes. If you're talking about the great days of Hollywood, the likes of, you know, Rogers and Cower (ph) and (INAUDIBLE), you know, what they did to promote their stars, you need to look back on that. We've forgotten about it now.

We have what we call press agents nowadays. They're not press agents. They're suppress agents. They hold things back. The sort of relationship between the journalist and the press agent in certainly the studio days was totally different.

RODGERS: Bryan, let me ask you. Why does a guy as good looking as Tom Cruise need packaging?

ALEXANDER: He doesn't need packaging. I mean, certainly he is a walking package. Everywhere he goes, people want to know his story. They want to read about him. I mean, he looks great whether he's walking down the red carpet or whether he's showing up at this glamorous premier. So I don't think he needs any sort of packaging. He does it himself.

RODGERS: Mark, essential the same question to you with a slightly different twist. Are these superstars loose canons? And do they need PR agents to keep from looking stupid?

BORKOWSKI: Ask Russell Crowe that question. Every star really needs a confidant, somebody who is very, very important in his life. And Tom Cruise for many years had one of the uber operators of the craft, Pat Kingsly (ph), in his life for many, many years.

RODGERS: Bryan, who is more perfectly packaged, Tom Cruise or the British royal family?

ALEXANDER: Tom Cruise, without a doubt. I mean, he has it all figured out. You're not seeing -- I mean, we're talking about this squirting incident, which is incredibly unusual for something like this to happen to Tom Cruise, a slight malfunction. But these kinds of malfunctions happen every day for the royal family. So, I mean, they could look to Tom Cruise as sort of a role model as to how to handle their public life.

RODGERS: Gentlemen, I thank you very much. Let me close with a quote from Mark Twain. "Every man is like the moon. We all have a dark side we don't want others to see," and that's why we have PR agents.

Both, thanks 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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