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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired November 26, 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.
And we begin this week with fury over allegations that President Bush discussed bombing Al Jazeera's headquarters in Qatar. It's reported that Tony Blair argued against such an attack.

The news was supposedly contained in a British government memo published this week by the "Daily Mirror" newspaper. Well, after the revelations, Britain's attorney general threatened newspapers with an injunction if they reported further details from the document.

The White House said the claims were outlandish. Well, in just a moment we'll discuss the reaction and the ramifications, but first ITN's Lucy Manning explains how the saga unfolded.


LUCY MANNING, ITV CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Making their own headlines. Al Jazeera were reporting on the leaked document in the "Daily Mirror" that allegedly said that President Bush had last year discussed with Tony Blair his plans to bomb Al Jazeera.

But while they were reporting it, the British press had been warned off, the Attorney General Lord Goldsmith threatening the media with prosecution under the Official Secrets Act if they published anymore details.

The two leaders' conversation was, said the "Mirror," in a document which turned up in the office of a former Labour MP, Tony Clark. His former researcher and a cabinet office official are charged with breaking the Official Secrets Act. The attorney general's decision to threaten editors with the same has baffled many at West Minster.

SIR MENZIES CAMPBELL, MP: Well, it does seem to me a very Draconian threat and it leads one to the suspicion that the anxiety here is not so much the national interest but preventing the government from embarrassment. After all, the events with which we are concerned took place some considerable time ago. Why is it necessary to invoke the terms of an act designed to deal with issues which arise in a time of national emergency?

MANNING: Allegations that President Bush wanted to take military action against Al Jazeera are certainly embarrassing. Al Jazeera's relations with the Americans have been turbulent. Its correspondent Tariq Ayub was killed in Baghdad when an American air raid hit the station's offices and its office in Kabul was also hit by two bombs in 2001.

But the fact the media has been warned off giving any more details from the leaked memo suggests there are other things in it the government doesn't want to come out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: undoubtedly the leak of such a memo is embarrassing, not only here but in the United States, where the finger of blame will be pointed at London, at Downing Street, and that is difficult for the prime minister. There are many theories awash now in the corridors of West Minster, and one that seems to be getting the most currency is that it's the White House that is most angry, it's the White House that has the most to lose, and it's the White House in particular that wants to keep that memo secret.

MANNING: After the attorney general's warning, the "Mirror" has given an undertaking not to publish any more.

JENNIFER MCDERMOTT: This is the first time that the government's threatened an Official Secrets Act prosecution against a journalist. They have in the past sought injunctions to suppress governmental information, for example, in the Spy Catcher case, where I acted for the "Guardian" and the "Observer." They've also brought prosecutions against former MI5 and MI6 people and governmental servants. But this is the first time that a prosecution has been threatened against a newspaper and its raw journalists.

MANNING: More details of the memo and what the prime minister did discuss with President Bush are likely to come at the trial of the two men accused in connection with leaking it, but it's likely the prosecution will try to keep the press and the public out.


NEELY: Well, up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, under fire. Al Jazeera goes head to head with the West. We look at the fallout from that leaked memo.

Stay with us for that.


NEELY: Welcome back.

Al Jazeera is demanding answers over claims that President Bush discussed plans to bomb its Doha-based headquarters. Staff at the Arab satellite network staged a symbolic protest and along with journalist rights groups they've called for urgent clarification from the British and from the United States governments.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has said that, quote, "refusing to address these reports in a substantive way only fuels suspicions."

So why did Britain's attorney general threaten the press with a gagging order? And what are the ramifications for Al Jazeera and, indeed, the rest of the world's media?

Well, to discuss this further, I'm joined, from Cairo, by Hugh Miles, author of the book "Al Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged the World." And here in London by Peter Preston, columnist and former editor of Britain's "Guardian" newspaper; and Al Jazeera's general manager, Wadah Khanfar.

Wadah, let me start with you first of all. It's impossible to know, really, whether George Bush was serious when he made this remark, but how seriously do you take it?

WADAH KHANFAR, AL JAZEERA: Of course, very serious. I think since this whole report has been published during the last few days, the Arab world, the Al Jazeera journalists and indeed the international journalist associations and everyone in the world would like to know exactly what was in that document, if this document does exist or not.

People are demanding to know the facts about this document. This is very serious matter. It is over historical value. It should be known to the public. And I think without this document or without the final say has been said about this document, a lot of suspicion, a lot of fear, will start appearing.

We are in the front of a new definition of freedom of expression, a new definition of democracy and reform, and we are now talking about reforming the Middle East, reforming the Arab world, and if this document - - we don't have clear understanding of what has happened, then I am afraid a lot of damage will occur.

NEELY: Now, you're in London, hoping to see Tony Blair. What do you want to hear from him?

KHANFAR: I would like to know the facts. I think first of all we need to know exactly, did that discussion take place or not. Did the American administration have in mind to bomb Al Jazeera? We know that the American (UNINTELLIGIBLE) said -- some American officials, not all of them, some of them truly understand Al Jazeera and understand the role of Al Jazeera. But some of them have criticized Al Jazeera. And two of our bureaus were bombed, one in Kabul and the other one in Baghdad, and two of our colleagues were killed and one of them has been arrested in Guantanamo, Samuel Haj (ph).

So there was a sort of environment, but to bomb Al Jazeera headquarters, this is something that we need to know exactly what was the fact about it.

NEELY: Hugh Miles, in Cairo, how likely is this?

HUGH MILES, AUTHOR: Well, it seems that the document could indeed be true, unbelievable though it may seem, given that America and Qatar are close allies, so I would say that this -- that what we have here is a conversation between Tony Blair and George Bush wound up on the record, but probably it was Mr. Bush's frat boy humor, a joke, really, which just wound up on the record.

NEELY: Of course, in many ways Al Jazeera is a pioneer of free speech and free expression in a region that really doesn't have very much. In some ways, George Bush should be cheering Al Jazeera.

MILES: Well, you would think so, and this is the funny thing, that up until the year 2000, up until 9/11, America was extremely positive about Al Jazeera. In fact, if you look at the State Department report on Qatar for the year 2000, you'll see that it is full of praise for Al Jazeera. It says the channel operates freely. All of this changed very, very quickly after 9/11, when Al Jazeera broadcast the infamous bin Laden tapes and also was the only television network to deliver pictures of the bombing of Afghanistan.

Ever since then, America has really changed its tune towards Al Jazeera.

NEELY: Whether -- again, whether this threat is serious or not, whether it was a joke or worse than that, how has the reporting of it gone down in the Arab world?

MILES: Well, it's gone down extremely badly, needless to say. Al Jazeera has enormous credibility in this part of the world. It's the most popular news channel in every Arab country. Al Jazeera reporters are immensely respected. They're regarded as brave enough to stick up for the Arab world against -- against the Blair and Bush government, which, of course, is viewed in a very dim light in this part of the world.

So I'm afraid that the memo has done the Bush administration no favors at all.

NEELY: Peter Preston, again, there is doubt about whether this comment was serious or not, but there is no doubt about the action that Tony Blair's government has taken. How drastic is that action?

PETER PRESTON, COLUMNIST: That's very drastic. That's writing to all the national editors, waving the Official Secrets Act from his attorney general, and saying that this is off limits, anybody who publishes this document or goes further will be sued under the Official Secrets Act. That's a pretty Draconian thing to do here and.

NEELY: And it tells you what?

PRESTON: This is the interesting thing. If it's a joke, and I can well say it's a joke because George Bush makes lots of jokes, some of them not very good jokes, then it would be absurd to go with the attorney general writing long legal letters to national newspaper editors and trying to put the frighteners on them.

That wouldn't fit. Therefore, why go all through these hoops? Possibly because there's something more serious about it. The British government is surely pretty embarrassed that there has been a leak from this end, and that's caused problems for the Americans and for the American-British relationship and all of that stuff.

Nevertheless, there are really heavy boots tramping around here and people are really trying to sort of finger color and do all sorts of things. You have to say why. It seems like a real shot in the foot.

NEELY: And once again, Iraq is the poison between the American and British governments, and journalists on both sides of the Atlantic.

PRESTON: That's right. I mean, people here are saying, well, this is a good story for Tony Blair. George Bush was out to do something pretty stupid and Tony Blair, for once, talked him out of it. But nevertheless, you're absolutely right. Iraq is a bit of an open wound for journalists everywhere, especially on the "Guardian," where difficult things happen, and here it is all put stage front again.

NEELY: Wadah Khanfar, just to go back to the history of Al Jazeera. Of course, your offices were bombed in Kabul and in Baghdad, unintentional says the United States, but how at risk do you and your journalists and perhaps you personally feel?

KHANFAR: In fact, first of all, we demanded an investigation, by the way, official investigation, about the bombing of both of our bureaus and until today we have not received any official investigation. Never any official apology for the killing of our colleague in Baghdad.

The second issue, yes, I think there is -- it is not only for Al Jazeera. Since this whole conflict with Iraq started, about 70 journalists have lost their life. From Daniel Pearl up to the last colleague from Reuters who lost his life in Baghdad. I think, yes, the relationship between authority and journalism during the last few years has started to deteriorate.

Journalists in our bureau are witnesses of real facts and they have to speak the truth, even to power. But now more and more they are becoming part of the story themselves, and unfortunately they have been attacked, sometimes environment is not healthy for them to practice their professionalism in certain environment.

From our point of view, as Al Jazeera, I think we need (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in order to concentrate more on the essence and the pillars of freedom of expression that the founders of this profession have installed decades ago, and I'm afraid the profession itself is in big danger.

NEELY: And, Hugh Miles, as you were saying, the damage in the Middle East is done, whether Wadah Khanfar gets clarification of this and meets Tony Blair and Tony Blair tells him, oh, it was all a joke. The damage is actually done there, isn't it?

MILES: Well, about this, yes, it has been done. And I should add that I was actually in Washington researching my book about Al Jazeera in April 2004, when this memo was allegedly made, and I spoke with members of the Pentagon, the State Department and with think tanks close to the Bush administration, and I heard a lot of extremely violent rhetoric against Al Jazeera off the record. Several people told me that the destruction of Al Jazeera was something which should be considered and other people said it's something which should have already been done.

NEELY: Peter Preston, you're an observer of journalism across the world. Al Jazeera, of course, is about to launch an English language service. Is it -- is there a lot that it can do to firm up its reputation?

PRESTON: I think the more people hear, see, and in America see Al Jazeera, can understand it and follow it, from what I've seen of it, they'll come to respect it not as the BBC or something like that, which is part of the particular British psyche, but which speaks internationally and which makes all of those points very sensibly. So, I mean, I think Al Jazeera is a mainstream satellite and cable news service and people will see that, especially when they see, for heaven's sake, Sir David Frost, who is known to us all as not exactly the front man for Osama bin Laden, doing his breakfast show. This is -- the British government is making itself look a bit ridiculous.

NEELY: Peter Preston, thank you very much. Wadah Khanfar, good luck with your meeting with whoever in the British government you do manage to meet. And in Cairo, Hugh Miles, thank you too.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, writing as rehabilitation. A new scheme gives inmates a chance to become reporters.

Stay with us for that.


NEELY: Welcome back.

From Oscar Wilde to Jeffrey Archer, writing fiction in prison has a long history, but now inmates in British jails are getting the chance to learn journalistic skills. The Pathways to Journalism scheme is being launched nationwide, and it aims to build prisoner self-esteem and improve communication. But will it raise false hopes of a writing career once they're released.

To discuss this further I'm joined by Jeremy Dear, the general secretary of Britain's National Union of Journalists, and Eric Allison, the "Guardian's" prison correspondent who started his journalistic career while in jail.

Eric Allison, let me start with you. You are what some people once called a career criminal. How did you become a career journalist?

ERIC ALLISON, JOURNALIST: Well, between 1960 and 2000 I spent a period of about -- a total period of about 16 years in jail, and I've always enjoyed writing, found it gave me a tremendous sense of release while I was in prison. Polished up my writing as best I could. And then when I came out the last time in 2000, just before 2000, about two years later the "Guardian" advertised for a prisons correspondent and they said they welcomed application from ex-offenders, so I applied for the job and, somewhat to my surprise, I got it. And I've been there for the last two years and enjoying every second of it.

NEELY: And you also have obviously the inside knowledge and the contacts to be a good correspondent.

ALLISON: Well, I hope so. I do maintain a lot of contact with prisoners. I get a lot of letters from them. I answer them all. I keep my ears to the ground about what is going on and try to report it objectively.

NEELY: Jeremy Dear, Eric Allison is in many ways a role model for this scheme. Why are you backing Pathways to Journalism?

JEREMY DEAR, NATL. UNION OF JOURNALISTS: Well, what we saw, we were invited into Wandsworth (ph) Prison to talk to a group of prisoners who were producing a magazine there, and what we saw was a pool of talent of people who could write brilliant stories, draw brilliant cartoons, could edit, had a whole range of different talents. And what we wanted to do was try and assist in any way we could to develop those talents, and through that what we've been able to do is help develop confidence, self-esteem and a whole range of skills that are not only skills that are not only skills that journalists would have but are transferable once people leave prison and we see it rooted in the whole idea of education being a social good, of helping people to transform from prison life into working life when they are released.

And it was an idea we came up with in a pub, like much good journalism started in a pub, but developed from there, now eight prisons running the pilot schemes and, as you said, going nationwide pretty soon. So, people like Eric give others the idea that they can become journalists, but this isn't just about people becoming journalists. This is about giving them a whole range of skills, from research, writing, editing, drawing, collating information and so on, that can help them in a whole range of jobs when they come out of prison.

NEELY: Are there any particular skills, if you like, that a former prisoner has that would be useful as a journalist?

DEAR: I think what you see in prison is exactly the same range of talents and skills as amongst people outside of prison. So, I mean, we've met people who would make absolutely brilliant journalists, others whose writing is very poor, spelling bad, and this kind of scheme actually just gives them a bit of a boost in trying to raise their basic skills as well.

So I don't think there is anything different about the people we've come across as part of this scheme. What we're trying to do is develop the talent and develop the skills of those who take part in it.

NEELY: Eric Allison, prison life has brought us some great literature of protest. What, again, being inside, what does that give you as a journalist, anything?

ALLISON: Well, you use your imagination a lot in prison. That goes without saying. What can I say? I'm (UNINTELLIGIBLE) of education and I really applaud the introduction of this scheme by the National Union of Journalists at a time when ironically although prisoners do write very well -- some prisoners do write very well -- the literacy rates in prisons is absolutely appalling. It's estimated that over half the prisoners have a reading age of that expected by an 11-year-old and when it comes to writing, 80 percent of inmates have a similar low level.

And although prison education is improving, it's still a long way down the list of the priorities.

NEELY: Eric, though, isn't there the danger that you will give some prisoners false hope of a glittering career outside prison?

ALLISON: No, I don't think so. I mean, my paper, the "Guardian," currently employs two ex-prisoners, myself and one other. There are lots of reform organizations who encourage prisoners to write for them. I was recently privileged to be asked to judge a writing competition and I was absolutely flabbergasted by the high standard, you know, despite the literacy rates that I spoke about before. The ones that can write really can write, and I was absolutely moved by the standard.

And I also felt, because, you see, writing in prison, it gives prisoners temporary release from their incarceration, and I could feel the emotions across the pages, you know, the frustration that they were getting rid of, and by expressing their thoughts and opinions on papers, I could almost feel their sense of release. It was palpable.

DEAR: I think we're very keen to ensure that people don't get that false sense, that they're suddenly going to come out and have a glittering career in journalism. This is about providing people with a range of skills and opportunities. What they do with those opportunities is then up to them. Some of the people who have been on the pilot scheme have gone on to do higher education courses, have gone on to do media studies or study journalism at a higher level. Some of them will get jobs. Lots of them will get jobs in other areas, but the skills they've learned, research, writing, editing, will be useful in a whole range of careers, so we're not trying to set up false hope.

NEELY: We'll leave it there. Jeremy Dear, thank you very much, and Eric Allison, thank you too.

ALLISON: Thank you.

NEELY: 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 Bill Neely, thanks for joining us.

But just before we go, let's pay tribute to the "Guardian" cartoonist David Austin, who died last week. A chemical analyst and a teacher before turning his hand to drawing, Austin won many awards for his sardonic wit and hilarious images. Here is a selection of his work.



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