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INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS

Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired December 17, 2005 - 21:00:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


BILL SCHNEIDER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Bill Schneider, 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 in Lebanon, where a prominent journalist and anti-Syrian politician has been assassinated.

Gebran Tueni was killed by a powerful car bomb in eastern Beirut on Monday. The 48-year-old was a fiery critic of Syria's involvement in Lebanon. He's the latest in a series of high profile figures to be killed this year.

Violence flared back in February when the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was murdered. Many blamed Syria, but Damascus denies any involvement. A United Nations inquiry team, though, says it has evidence to the contrary.

With more on the tension in Lebanon and the increasing risks for journalists, I'm joined from Beirut by CNN's Ben Wedeman.

Ben, give us some background about Gebran Tueni and what provoked this terrible attack.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Gebran Tueni was the editor-in- chief of "an-Nahar" newspaper, the most widely wed newspaper in Lebanon and a newspaper widely read throughout the Arab world.

Now, he was a man who for years now has been an outspoken critic of Syrian involvement in Lebanon and a proponent of Democratic change in the Arab world.

I remember the first time I interviewed him here in Beirut in 1999. We were doing a story about why democracy was in such short supply in the Arab world, and he was outspoken to the point that literally my jaw dropped as I listened to him, because this is a part of the world where, when the camera is off, Bill, people will tell you a lot, but when you turn on the camera their strong views suddenly become -- became -- rather become -- very weak.

In the case of Gebran, he did not change what he said when the camera was rolling. He criticized very bluntly the Syrians and most Arab regimes for what he believed were their authoritarian tendencies and their corruption. And I think that sort of outspoken voice that he provided was one of the things that precipitated his assassination on Monday.

SCHNEIDER: Ben, there was a large number of Lebanese who showed up at Mr. Tueni's funeral. Would you say that his murder has united or has it divided Lebanon? And is the government in Lebanon on the verge of collapse?

WEDEMAN: Well, the government is -- basically has a bit of a split within it. Most of the members of the cabinet are anti-Syrian. They would like to see any sort of Syrian involvement come to an end here in Lebanon.

On Monday, following Gebran's assassination, there was an emergency cabinet meeting. At that meeting, the majority of the cabinet called for a broadening of the international investigation into the murder of Rafik Al Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, to include a series of attacks, assassinations and assassination attempts, on prominent Lebanese critics of Syrian involvement here, going back to October of 2004.

But we saw five members of the cabinet affiliated with the Shiite political parties suspend their participation, as well as one pro-Syrian Christian cabinet members as well. But it appears for the moment the cabinet is still intact, but there is a split here in Lebanon between on the one hand many Sunni Muslims, Druse and the Christians and on the other hand a small group of Christians and the Shiites. So this really is a major split and it is a source of tension here in Beirut and throughout the country -- Bill.

SCHNEIDER: How does this affect how the media operate in Lebanon?

WEDEMAN: Well, we see that many people are still outspoken and, really, if anything, the criticism of Syria has intensified, but there is fear. People are worried.

We saw Samir Kassir, who was a columnist for the same newspaper as Gebran Tueni, who was killed earlier this year. We saw May Chidiac, who is a television reporter for the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, severely wounded, basically losing part of her right leg and right arm in a car bomb. She's now being treated in Paris.

So there is a lot of worry about -- among those who are criticizing Syria and its involvement in Lebanon. They're taking more precautions. I know of one columnist who has decided not to drive his own car. He only gets around in hired taxis.

So people are taking more precautions, but given the level of anger and resentment over these killings, if anything, some people are becoming even more outspoken.

SCHNEIDER: With the sequence of attacks on journalists, do you believe it's because journalists are less well protected than politicians?

WEDEMAN: Well, journalists, yes, they don't have the kind of security protection many of the politicians do, for instance. Now, Gebran Tueni, he did have an armored vehicle. He did go around with a body guard. But he was, of course, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper. There are others who don't have the resources and, therefore, are an easier, a softer target, than some of the politicians.

SCHNEIDER: Tell us, from your personal experience, what is it like working as a journalist now in Lebanon?

WEDEMAN: Well, Lebanon has always been one of the easiest Arab countries to work in. You have a population who is very sort of sophisticated and aware of the media and its role. It's a country where it's very easy to talk to people, where people really don't hold back in expressing their opinions, and that's certainly gotten much better since the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in April.

So by and large, it's an easy place to work in. It's a friendlier place. But one does sense -- have a sense of uneasiness sometimes. I'll tell you, on Monday, following Gebran's assassination, I felt a little uncomfortable going back to my hotel. I -- maybe it was just a surge of -- a prick of paranoia -- but you do realize that journalists have in Lebanon -- more Lebanese journalists than international journalists -- are a target. They are being watched by unfriendly forces, who we don't know, and there is a threat. There is an air of danger here that did not exist before.

SCHNEIDER: Well, some time before, we all remember the terrible decade-long civil war in Lebanon that virtually destroyed Beirut. In your estimation, is there any real -- is there any serious danger that Lebanon could slip once again into that kind of a civil war?

WEDEMAN: Many Lebanese remember those bitter 15 years of civil war and there is not an appetite to basically destroy the country again. The memories are still very vivid. You can still go around parts of Beirut and see the level of destruction that was wrecked on this city.

And so I think it's premature to talk about a return of violence. There is tension. We've heard some leaders here talk about a secret war going on, a low-level war going on in the form of these bombings, of these assassinations. But a return to civil war is, at this point, I would say unlikely, although not implausible -- Bill.

SCHNEIDER: Ben Wedeman in Lebanon, thank you very much. And, please, stay safe.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, spinning the news, becoming the story. Alistair Campbell has done it all. He joins us in just a moment to talk about his latest media project.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCHNEIDER: Welcome back.

He's arguably the most famous press secretary Britain has every had. Alistair Campbell's job at Downing Street was to make the prime minister, Tony Blair, look good in the media. He was renowned for firing off letters to news editors. But now the former spin doctor has taken on their job, just for one day though, when he edited Britain's "Five News."

To enlighten us on the experience, he joins us now, along with "Five News" editor Mark Calvert.

Thank you and welcome.

Mr. Calvert, what was the purpose of this shall we say experiment?

MARK CALVERT, "FIVE NEWS": It certainly was an experiment, born out of a newsroom debate about the various merits of various stories and what we should go with, what we shouldn't, and what we actually ended up debating was what is news. And actually, the fact is that, as you know, news is what people like me decide it is every day.

And so out of that was born the idea, what about introducing new voices, outsiders, to get involved in the decision-making process, and we chose four people from very different backgrounds and different histories, including Alistair.

SCHNEIDER: Mr. Campbell, did you learn anything from this experience?

ALISTAIR CAMPBELL, FMR. BRITISH PRESS SECY.: Yes, probably. I mean, I think -- I've always -- I've got very strong views about the media generally. I don't have a lot of time for the British media. I think -- an it's interesting to be here saying this -- I think 24 hour news has had a very detrimental effect upon the quality of journalism over all.

I make these points, you know, kind of quite often, so I think when somebody like "Five" comes along and says, well, come and see how it's done and put in your input, I think it's, you know, it would be wrong to say no.

And what I think I learned was that the process of news packaging, if you like, is both simpler and also more complicated than I thought. Simpler in that they are having to make decisions on the run very, very -- actually, very -- I was surprised at how few stories you could be getting into a half-hour program, because you kind of -- I just dip in and out of the news. I mean, I will watch maybe one news bulletin a day. I might watch Sky for 10 minutes during the day. I watch a bit of sports.

But, actually, when you're presenting a fixed news program, there are all sorts of limitations upon you, which I think maybe at the end of the day I was more sympathetic to the sort of people that when you talk about firing off letters and the rest of it, I would regularly phone up editors and say why aren't you covering this, why aren't you covering that. And, actually, it may be a very, very simple reason: something else just came up.

SCHNEIDER: Well, then, you did learn something, and I suppose something was achieved. Do you regard the experiment as successful?

CALVERT: I do on two levels. I think internally all of the four editors in very different ways made us think a little bit more carefully about what we do, how we do it and why we do it. And then externally I think from the feedback, from our viewers and from the audience figures, it was a great success. Our audience enjoyed the programs, watched them in great numbers, and I think it's something that we might well repeat in the future.

SCHNEIDER: Will it change in any way the way your station normally operates? Did you learn something?

CALVERT: I think so. It won't change day to day what we do. This was in total a couple of hours out of 300 or so hours of news that we produce for Channel 5 each year.

What it talk me was that actually each of us can afford to broaden our horizons when we're discussing story choices and story treatments. And all of our four guest editors come from very different backgrounds with very different interests, prejudices even, but through that they brought to our agenda stories that we wouldn't necessarily have covered.

SCHNEIDER: Mr. Campbell, you wrote at one time in the "Guardian": "Serious debates don't fit the current media agenda for politics."

We all know that politics in the television era has become much more personality driven. What can be done about that?

CAMPBELL: It's not just a question of being personality driven. I think that we can sit here, we can have a conversation that will get a few minutes on air. Most "news," in quotes, on politics now, if the politician is lucky, he might get 20 seconds followed by somebody coming on and saying what he meant, a reporter.

One of the things I did in relation to the slot that I had on "Five News," I wanted it as free of reporters as possible. We actually did the lead story without a reporter. We did the second story, I think, without a reporter. Just let the people involved in the story speak without this constant mediation.

When you say what can be done, the honest answer is I don't know. And one of the reasons I left is that I kind of gave up trying. But you've got three parts to this. You've got politics, you've got the media and you've got the public, and I think the public do want a more sustained, more serious political debate and they're currently not getting it from the mainstream media.

And I think, you know, when newspapers sort of bemoan the fact that they're losing sales, when TV and radio have these intense debates about how they can keep their audience share, I actually think the pressures are always to go down market, but actually going up market might be the answer.

SCHNEIDER: Gentlemen, thank you.

We'll be continuing this discussion after this short break. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCHNEIDER: Welcome back.

There is supposed to be a line between journalism and politics. Can it be crossed? Should it be?

Well, that's exactly what former Downing Street spin doctor Alistair Campbell has done. He rejoins me now, along with "Five News" editor Mark Calvert.

Mr. Campbell, you mentioned the harmful effects, in your view, of the 24 hour news cycle. Explain what you mean by that. What effects have you seen that you think are hurtful to politics?

CAMPBELL: Well, 24 hour news now I think has largely become -- because most days there isn't so much going on that you can fill 24 hours with, quote, "news," new things happening. So what it's become is actually a talking shop. It's become journalists talking to each other about their views about stories that they've been covering. And I think there's been a separation in that process from the real world where people live their lives, where they take their kids to school, they go shopping, they go to work.

And what's happening is that a story in the media world that is new at 9:00 in the morning is old by 5:00 in the evening, and the public have been out there, they're not latched on to it.

And the other thing that's happened, 24 hour news has forced newspapers to stop being newspapers. They are now comment sheets. They are part of the political debate. They are participants rather than spectators in the political debate. And I just don't think that we've really adapted to that. Politics has not adapted to it properly, the media has not adapted to it properly, and the public, I think, is getting lost in all of this.

The public, in my view, does not get from the media the kind of debate that it should given the space that the media now occupies.

SCHNEIDER: Mr. Calvert, will you care to defend the role of us poor beleaguered reporters in this process?

CALVERT: Absolutely. I think there is an increasingly important role for the media to mediate between politics and between people. I think where we agree is the way in which the media does that job. And even though increasingly because of things like the Internet and people's access to source material, they can bypass the conventional media.

I hope and I think there is a hugely important job -- perhaps more important than ever -- for us to distill and mediate all of this information and try to offer the public an accurate reading of what politicians are doing to affect people's lives. And I think if we lose that, not just will the media be in trouble but the people and I think democracy will be in trouble. And I would hope that Alistair wouldn't necessarily disagree with that.

CAMPBELL: I don't disagree with the principle. I think the practice of it is not happening, because what is -- the definition of news is being driven by a very narrow, almost cliquish view now.

I think the West Minister Village is becoming increasingly divorced from the importance of politics. I mean, I saw an extraordinary thing recently with one of our top political journalist saying the problem with politics is it's so boring. Well, you know, get out of it. If you think it's boring, get out of it. Get somebody in there who does think politics is interesting.

And the public, I think, are fascinated by the people who run the country. They're fascinated by the people who want to run the country. They're fascinated by a lot of the issues. They are getting divorced from politics, in my view, because it's so mediated, they're being encouraged to be cynical, and actually the things that they really care about, by and large, are not being covered.

SCHNEIDER: There has been a lot of comment recently on the Punch and Judy nature of modern politics. There was a theory -- we had a show on CNN for many years called "Crossfire," which was right versus left, punching it out. Do you think this serves viewers? Do you think that there is a reaction against this kind of coverage of politics?

CAMPBELL: If there is no place within the television debate of politics for reflective discussion, where politicians can feel that they can have a proper discussion without there being sort of, you know, screaming headlines about splits and gaffs if they say one thing slightly off que.

I think that a lot of political interviews have just become a game. The interviewer is trying to catch them out. The politician is very clever and knows how to avoid it, and the public is watching and it's just stale, which it is. And we've all just got to freshen up a bit.

CALVERT: But isn't this "yay/boo/sucks" (ph) approach that you're talking about and criticizing in the media coverage of politics actually fueled by politicians? If you watch our prime minister's question time every week in the House of Commons.

CAMPBELL: Yes, big arguments are being tested there. And the thing about politics is it's passionate.

CALVERT: I'm not sure big arguments are being tested. You know and our viewers know that often it's no better than a school, classroom debate, with insults and "yay/boo/sucks" (ph).

CAMPBELL: There aren't that many journalists I know who could stand up and do what the prime minister does every Wednesday afternoon. They just wouldn't be able to hack it.

Most of the people who pop up on television talking about politics, they know next to nothing. I mean, a lot of them. The thing is, there is just so much space now, and anybody who becomes a reporter now, they think it's their job to get their face on television giving their opinions.

I know about politics. I know things that are going on, and I've got very little respect for most of the people who are talking about it on television. That's a bad thing.

SCHNEIDER: Get their face on, yes. Giving their opinions, well, most journalists would say I'm not there to present my opinions.

CAMPBELL: Well, that's what they do, a lot of them.

SCHNEIDER: You think so?

CAMPBELL: Well, if it's not their opinion, it's their assessment, which they present as being a kind of rounded judgment. And I just feel now the pressure is on TV reporters in particular, just to sort of get their face on camera, fill the screen, fill the time, fill the space, and sort of say the first thing that comes into their heads. There are very few that when they come I think, right, this guy is going to be worth listening to.

CALVERT: If politicians served up hard facts and hard figures all the time, there would be less of a need for expert analysis by political correspondents.

CAMPBELL: That's very, very self-serving, Mark. Very self-serving.

CALVERT: It's absolutely about serving the public. I agree with you on opinion. But there is an ever-increasing need for expert analysis, and that's what.

CAMPBELL: Well, make it expert, that's my view.

CALVERT: That's what most of the political correspondents I know seek to do.

SCHNEIDER: Let's talk about crossing the line. There's been a lot of comment in the United States about people like Alistair crossing the line between the press. He is an expert. He knows a great deal about the issues and about government and politics. But should people like that be more involved in the media coverage? They are very often. George Stephanopoulos is a host of a television show every week in the United States. He was an adviser to President Clinton. Do you think that's appropriate?

CALVERT: In the United Kingdom we have a strong tradition enshrining law and regulation of fair and impartial news coverage, and long may that continue.

Within that news coverage --

CAMPBELL: Or start even.

CALVERT: -- I think there is place for debate and for opinion and for discourse and even disagreement, and for people like Alistair, and people on the other side of the political spectrum to get involved, as long as it is clearly flagged up as these are people with a view and with politics. This is their view and this is their politics.

SCHNEIDER: Would you like to see more people crossing the line, back and forth, media to government, government to media?

CAMPBELL: I have to be honest. The success rate of people crossing from the media into politics is not very high, and that's because I think a lot of journalists think politics is very, very easy. It's a lot harder than journalism.

SCHNEIDER: We shall see where this experiment leads.

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 Schneider. Thanks for joining us.

END

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