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Media Coverage Critique

Aired August 6, 2005 - 21:00:00   ET


WALTER RODGERS, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): 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.
Lauded as a jihad warrior, vilified as a child killer, Shamil Basayev is a Chechen warlord who allegedly masterminded the Beslan school massacre and the 2002 Moscow theater siege.

For those attacks alone, Russia wants him punished, but he's far from out of the picture, appearing recently on American television, hinting at yet more terror.

The American television company ABC's decision to broadcast Basayev's menacing words has drawn the wrath of the Russian government. The Foreign Ministry initially tried to have the interview banned, then later refused to renew the accreditation for the network's journalists.

ABC has rejected the Kremlin's claim that broadcasting the interview is tantamount to condoning Basayev's views.

To discuss this further I'm joined from Russia by Lynn Berry, editor of the "Moscow Times," and here in London by John Lloyd, editor of the "Financial Times" magazine, and Svetlana Babayeva from the Russian news agency Novosti.

John, did the Russians have a point? Do they have a right to curtail what they perceive to be -- curtail and punish -- what they perceive to be incitement?

JOHN LLOYD "FINANCIAL TIMES": Well, they have a right in the abstract sense. I think, however, it's a sign of the tightening control that Russia wants to exert, not just upon people like us, foreign journalists, but also upon it's own.

I think what you have seen over the last decade really, certainly the period of Putin's rule, has been an attempt to control news media, to make sure that the criteria of the state take first place rather than as, I think Putin would see it, the criteria of the news media, and an attempt to set the agenda much more and also to impress upon foreign networks, foreign correspondents, there are some things they just ain't going to take.

It's a different accent, different atmosphere, from what it was in the '90s.

RODGERS: Svetlana, why do you think the Russian government behaved and acted the way it did? I mean, no Russians watched the ABC News interview to speak of.

SVETLANA BABAYEVA, NOVOSTI: Well, I think the reaction of the Russian government is too tough. I mean, there was no need from my point of view just to stop the accreditation of the ABC. At the same time -- probably it would be enough, kind of an official announcement or an official notice. That would be enough.

But at the same time, well, I'm not a hard supporter of giving the air to terrorists, and Basayev is definitely a terrorist. And I would not be happy, for example, if I could watch on the TV bin Laden also, and Basayev as well.

RODGERS: Lynn, is this perhaps a case where the American Broadcasting Company has a right to interview whoever it wants and air what it wants and the Russian government has an equal right to react the way it wants to?

LYNN BERRY, "MOSCOW TIMES": I think the Russian government's reaction is not surprising. It's very consistent with what we have seen throughout Putin's presidency.

Since he came to power -- arguably in late 1999 when he became prime minister but president in early 2000 -- he has worked to restrict media coverage, both foreign and domestic, in Chechnya. And we have seen foreign reporters have their accreditation denied and their visa requests denied and we have seen much worse things happen to Russian reporters in Chechnya.

What is different about this is that the harsh action was taken towards an entire news organization in Moscow, against people who were not themselves involved in this interview, and that the attack on ABC was so public. It was on state television.

RODGERS: John, let me ask you. Do you think perhaps the West expects the Russian's to behave too much like the West and not as they should behave, which is to say like Russians?

LLOYD: I think that's partly true, I think especially in the '90s, after the Soviet Union and the Communist Party both crumbled around the same time.

You did have this possibly načve expectation that all of the sudden all Russians were going to be liberal democrats and that the country would, in two or three years, become more like a Central European country, free, European, with liberal democratic norms. And clearly after centuries, really millennia of autocratic rule, both by commissar and by czars, then you can't expect that.

What I think you can expect and hope for and put pressure for is that the -- what the Russians themselves have signed up for, what the government has signed up for, which is human rights, civil rights, open society, should be regarded as the standard to which they should set themselves. And I don't think that the West or outside organizations, in this case ABC, should simply say, well, that's the way things are in Moscow, there you go. I think you have to say it's an open society which wants to kind of things, and says it wants the kinds of things which other open societies want, and therefore it must be bound by the same norms.

RODGERS: Svetlana, what was the reaction of the Russian people to the ABC broadcast? Did the Russian people see this interview as advocacy of terrorism on American television?

BABAYEVA: Well, I haven't seen any surveys on particularly this problem. But at the same time, we can say two things. First is quite negative attitude to Americans. But probably it's a historical one. And at the same time, Russian people give very interesting figures in surveys and polls on Chechnya and caucuses, attitude. I mean all people are tired of war and they're not satisfied completely with the methods which Russian government accepts and has in this region. So people understand everything.

RODGERS: Lynn, do you think the Russian government perhaps overreacted and was more sensitive than it needed to be?

BERRY: I think its reaction was very predictable and I'm not sure the comparison between bin Laden and Basayev is a fair one, but in the Russian mind that's how they see it. And you can imagine if an American correspondent found bin Laden, intentionally, accidentally, whatever. And a month later the interview is shown on national television, most Americans would think he had a responsibility to immediately contact the military, the secret services, and alert them to where this man is, because he is considered by this reporter's country as a terrorist.

RODGERS: John, one last question to you. What is the difference --

BABAYEVA: Could I just possibly add one more thing to what Lynn said, if it is possible?

RODGERS: Please.

BABAYEVA: I would like to say that this is our probably common problem, that we cannot compare Basayev and bin Laden. I mean Moscow, for example, is not charged as a capital which became a victim of terrorists. A lot off countries, European countries and the United States also, judge Russia as a particular different thing than, for example, London or Madrid. And this is the problem. This is our problem, I mean, Russians, and also the problem, of the West.

We judge in different ways what happened in London, for example, and in Moscow. And that's why even Americans and Europeans as well consider Russian cases as a completely different situation.

RODGERS: John, a quick last question to you. Western news organizations often self-censor on broadcasts that come from Al Jazeera, sometimes some very grim broadcasts. Is there a difference between that self-censorship and what the Russians are doing?

LLOYD: I think there is. I don't believe Western broadcasters would stock an interview with a terrorist. I think the self-censoring is over, as you say, the particularly grisly after-effects of a bomb, or something of that kind. I think that by and large most organizations, including this one that we're on, would take the view that even if you were interviewing and had an interview with some particularly horrible terrorist -- and Basayev is a terrorist, there is no question of that -- then you air it to hear what the person has to say. Better to find out what the horror is then to cover it up. I think that's the view most organizations would take.

RODGERS: Lynn, actually, one last question to you. Do you expect that within Moscow, within the Russian government, there is any regret about what they did to ABC News, or do you think they firmly believe they did the right thing and they're going to stand by it for some months to come?

BERRY: My sense is that they will stand by it, but the wording of the Foreign Ministry warning to ABC and the public announcement on national television, that they would be not renewing the accreditation of the ABC journalists that are here now, was left open.

So it's quite possible that in a few months, a year or two from now, when ABC wants to send somebody in, that it will be resolved. It was left somewhat open.

RODGERS: Lynn, Svetlana, John, thank you very much.

Up next from INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, has the media gone too far in its coverage of the British terror attacks? That's ahead.

Stay with us.


RODGERS: Welcome back.

Innocent until proven guilty. That is the basis of British law, but it is a notion which the media has been accused of blatantly ignoring, especially with regard to those arrested in connection with last month's bombs.

Recent newspaper headlines, including "We Got the Bastards" splashed across one tabloid, have prompted calls for the attorney general to reign in the press. Civil liberties groups say the assumptions of guilt after arrest makes it virtually impossible for the suspects to get a fair trial.

So has the media prejudiced the defendant's rights? And where do we go from here?

To debate the issues, I'm joined by Vikram Dodd, a correspondent for the "Guardian" newspaper here in Britain, and Paul Gilbert, a media lawyer with Finers Stephens Innocent.

Vikram, have the rights been so prejudiced that a fair trial is out of the question?

VIKRAM DODD, "GUARDIAN": I don't think so. I think the courts have shown themselves in recent years to be pretty robust in neutralizing any possible prejudice that arises. It's important to remember that the law on this, the exact wording, is a substantial risk of prejudice, and judges at the Old Bailey (ph), which is where these people will end up being tried if they ever are, think they've got a good handle on giving directions to the jury to say whatever you have read before, now you're in this courtroom, ignore everything that you have heard or read or seen on TV and just concentrate on the facts. And, moreover, juries are proving themselves perfectly able to do that.

RODGERS: But those were pretty egregious headlines.

DODD: Oh, there has been far worse from the tabloids. There has been far, far worse. I mean, recent case I covered was the ricin trial, which was used by the Bush administration as part of their case for war against Iraq. It was a find of potential poison in a North London suburb, and, you know, the British public were well and truly scared by the headlines about that.

Fast forward about 18 months, and the trial comes to the Old Bailey (ph), and the jury acquits on 17 out of 18 counts and the jury proved very well capable there of looking at the evidence and thumbing their noses at the prosecution.

RODGERS: Paul, do you think the presumption of innocence has been thrown out the window by the British media?

PAUL GILBERT, MEDIA LAWYER: I have to say that that particular headline, the one that you just showed, is very prejudicial, and while I entirely agree with Vikram, there is this idea called the fade factor, and it really is that, OK, you have the headlines now, but in 18 months time, when the trial takes place, that sort of prejudice is gone. And as Vikram rightly says, the judge directs the jury that what they must concentrate on is the evidence that they heard in the courtroom and not what they may have read in the newspapers.

But there is an increasing interest in this country in major police investigations and, in fact, we have the police certainly in the case of the investigation into location of these bombers, we had the police using the media, quite rightly, as a source of information, by putting out pictures and so on and so forth.

And so one wonders whether there isn't perhaps a need now to review the act of parliament that controls the way in which reports are made of these types of investigations that may lead to a trial, because we now have news services who have an increasing demand and need for information. We have the censored coverage in the press. And what we have also had is a number of these attorney general guidelines, and what happens there is the attorney general will look at a particular case and the way it's being reported and will issue some guidance.

Now there has been some guidance issues in this particular case, but it only came on Monday. I think it really should have come out on Friday evening, when they were arrested.

RODGERS: Do you, or would you, as a defense attorney, petition for a change of venue just to get this case out of London, where tempers are running highest? And might you get a more fair trial, let's say, in Edinburgh or Glasgow?

GILBERT: Well, it would have to be somewhere within England and Wales, but, yes, I think I probably would want to try and move the venue of the trial out of London and perhaps out to perhaps Birmingham or Manchester, where, as you say, the feelings would not be quite so high. Because it is absolutely essential that, never mind how awful these offenses are, that the jury do consider the case on the evidence. And if the "Sun" is right and it is them, then, fine. But on the evidence, not on assumptions based on what is being told to them by the police.

RODGERS: Vikram, would you expect that the attorney general or the courts might move to impose a gag rule in these cases?

DODD: Well, you have probably covered cases here in London and from an American background you probably can't believe the restrictions there are here. From what I can tell in the States, it's pretty much a free for all. It's a lot freer than it is in the United Kingdom. So we operate under a gag anyway.

Once these people -- the rules, the custom and perhaps the law, is that once these people are charged, there are strict, strict restrictions on what you can report, what you can say, what you can't say, and there is actually only a narrow group of facts you can then put in the news media. And once the trial starts, the simple rule is what is said in front of the jury can be reported. Anything not said in front of the jury, you can't mention.

So I think there are very strict limits on what we can say and what we can't say once the person is charged. Until then, I think the custom and practice is that you can do whatever you care.

Should the attorney general be more strict? I don't think so. The other thing to remember is this is a far more diffuse media landscape than we had when these rules were first granted. You know, you have way more media, way more on the Net and way more on television. So that "Sun" front page, a lot of people would have remembered it 20 years ago, but now it will be one of, say, 30, 40 sources the average person will see in a day.

RODGERS: Do you think because of these headlines, a British jury might be even more scrupulous in its efforts to come to a fair conclusion?

GILBERT: Walter, I would really hope so, and I share Vikram's view, that I think English juries, I think juries, actually, in the Western world, take their jobs very seriously, and I think they do try and divorce their feelings or prejudices that have been caused by looking at it in the press and what goes on in the courtroom.

But, you see, I think we're getting close to a stage where one has less confidence that's the case, and in the end justice has to be seen to be done. Ask I think the defendant needs to be confident that he's getting a fair trial. And he doesn't know what goes on in the jury room either. So in a way, we're going to have to look at this situation, otherwise there won't be that confidence.

RODGERS: So on a scale of 1 to 10 on the justice meter, how important are those headlines? On a scale of 1 to 10.

GILBERT: On a scale of 1 to 10, 4 to 5, I would say.

RODGERS: Vikram?

DODD: When it comes to trial in a year to 18 months time, I'd say about 2.

RODGERS: Really?

Vikram, Paul, thank you very, very much.

RODGERS: Let's just take a moment now to remember a colleague who was shot dead in Iraq this past week. Steven Vincent, a freelance journalist from the United States was killed by unknown gunmen near the southern city of Basra. He had been writing a book about the city where insurgents have recently stepped up their attacks.

In a recent "New York Times" article, Mr. Vincent wrote that Basra's police force had been infiltrated by Shia militants. He also criticized British forces who were responsible for security in that area.

And there is more to come on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Please stay with us.


RODGERS: Welcome back.

From politics to primetime, Al Gore has had a rather dramatic change of career. The former U.S. vice president has just launched his own cable television channel that goes out to around 20 million homes. It aims to appeal to young viewers with short burst stories and an eye on what is hip and trendy. But with a quarter of its content produced by so-called amateurs, will its utopian vision succeed?

Brian Todd reports on Current TV's appeal to a new constituency.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Gone are the earth tone suits and ties, post-election facial growth and firebrand speeches, for now. Al Gore is darkly attired, open collared, appealing to a new constituency.

AL GORE, FORMER U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: I'm making a long-term commitment to the future of this network, and I don't expect to ever be a candidate for office again.

TODD: The former vice president and Democratic standard-bearer no doubt hopes this venture might work a little better than his endorsement of Howard Dean.

Current TV, which just launched, features Al Gore as chairman, and touts itself as America's first network created for, by and with an 18 to 34-year-old audience.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Go everywhere, meet everyone, do everything, try it all once.

TODD: Current seeks to grab those young viewers with stylized news and social features intro'ed by MTV'ish hosts, some with journalistic backgrounds, others like Johnny Bell, whose previous experience according to the network consists of surfing and working on a banana farm.

JOHNNY BELL, CURRENT HOST: Do you ever feel like hanging your boss over a tall building by his toenails just to see how well they're attached to his feet? Well, if you have, you should probably chill out.

TODD: Bell and his cohorts aren't wrapping around traditional programs but so-called pods, short burst stories lasting anywhere from 15 seconds to 15 minutes. They're all over the scheduling map. A mixed blessing, according to TV writers.

PAUL FARHI, "WASHINGTON POST": Television viewing is very habitual. People like to sit down at a certain hour, flip around and see something that is familiar to them. This thing is going to shake up the whole model altogether.

TODD: But a quarter of the content is produced by amateurs with their own cameras. While some programming is political, Gore promises it won't be partisan, and network officials say there are generally no plans are the former vice president to appear on air. Still, could it be a platform for future ambitions?

BILL SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. ANALYST: Even if he's not on air, people will be talking about Al Gore's television network, Al Gore's station. What's going on. The point is, he's got to keep part of the debate, keep himself part of the debate. This could be one way of doing that.


RODGER: That was CNN's Brian Todd reporting.

And, finally, Sony Pictures is paying the price for using the work of a pseudo-journalist. The studio has had to fork out around $1.5 million after quoting a fake movie critic in ads for several of its films. A civil court ruled that any moviegoer who saw one of the five named films is eligible for a $5 reimbursement.

In one ad for "A Knight's Tale," a critic identified as David Manning of the "Ridgefield Press" called actor Health Ledger "this year's hottest new star." At the time, no one by that name was working for the newspaper. Sony declined to comment.

And 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 Walt Rodgers, thanks for joining us.



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