Skip to main content
U.S. Edition


Return to Transcripts main page


Hunter S. Thompson's Photos; Dangers to Journalists; Friendly Fire Tape Released

Aired February 9, 2007 - 14:00:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Fionnuala Sweeney in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories.
This week, the fog of war. The topic videotape sheds light on a deadly friendly fire incident. We discuss how the media forced the Pentagon's hand.

Plus, journalists under attack. A major study identifies the greatest global threats.

And gonzo photography. A new exhibition of pictures reveal a different side to Hunter S. Thompson.

And we begin with a story that began as a tabloid scoop, exposing tensions between London and Washington, ending in a rare climb down by the Pentagon.

This week, "The Sun" newspaper obtained exclusive cockpit footage of U.S. pilots bombing British forces in a friendly fire incident in 2003. The Pentagon had withheld the classified videotape from an investigation into the death of a soldier killed during that incident.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're in jail, dude.


SWEENEY: "The Sun" released the pictures to the global media, placing the footage in the public domain. Within hours, the Pentagon says it would allow the video to be used as evidence in the coroner's inquest into the British soldier's death.

Well, I discussed this story with "Sun" defense editor Tom Newton Dunn, who broke the story.


SWEENEY: Once you knew you had the tape, and were in breach of the Official Secrets Act if you released it, I mean, how much to'ing and fro'ing did you with your lawyers before releasing it?

TOM NEWTON DUNN, THE SUN: About as much as physically possible without wearing down the carpets between our offices and the lawyers' offices.

SWEENEY: But in a sense, it was quite a tricky period of time for you, because you felt obliged to give the British government notice that you were going to release this tape?

DUNN: Well, actually, there are no rules covering how much notice we give them at all. We could have just jammed the whole audio and the first thing to hear about it is on the print run, when presumably someone tells them in our first position about light is a highly secretive, classified document and tape.

SWEENEY: So why did you feel obliged to go to the British government?

DUNN: For the simple reason that - I mean, we began this whole process with the feeling being - we had no idea. We felt 60/40, 70/30, they were going to injunct us for the simple reason that the Americans, Pentagon would absolutely insist. We know for a fact the Pentagon were livid that this even got as far as the coroner's eyes, let alone leaked to a - you know, a major national newspaper.

And now the (INAUDIBLE) had their own reasons for wanting this or not the public domain. They were furious that they had all this pressure from the Americans. So they would then have to sort of steam in and injunct us.

The reason why we went to the MOD is if they are going to injunct us, we'd rather they do it in the middle of the day than 10:00 o'clock at night when we printed half of our 9 million print run. We don't have to pop a lot of it, which costs us millions.

SWEENEY: Does "The Sun" - which is always pushing the boundaries in journalism in Britain feel that it's done a public service here?

DUNN: Everybody wanted this. Huge amounts of people in the British military wanted this out. And dare I say we're also speaking to quite a few people in the U.S. military who want this out as well. I have lots of military contacts. None of them have e-mailed me or texted me in the last two days saying this was a bad thing.

SWEENEY: Let me ask you about a columnist in your sister newspaper, "The Times," where basically they're alleging that "The Sun," and you in particular, have set a dangerous precedent by releasing this information, information which hasn't been declassified.

DUNN: This isn't the first classified document to be released. Dare I say "The Times" might have released the odd classified document themselves over their illustrious history.

I have to say having viewed the thing throughout, with most of the world having seen it now, it is obvious to everybody there is nothing classified on this tape. Another reason why we wanted to - sorry I say this - nothing secret about the contents of this tape, no names, no procedures, I mean, it's pretty obvious what they do there.

SWEENEY: Personally, you have had a massive scoop this week. What are your thoughts now as you end this week, which has been really quite a tremendous one for your personally?

DUNN: Well, clearly, it's very exciting stuff. It's very exhilarating. It's extremely rewarding when you can deliver such a thing that's so clearly good, right, and you know, in the public interest. And in people's interests, you know, there are families out there. There's a widow out there who has been trying to find this out for four years. So that's one point.

It hasn't been without its nerves. And I've drunk a lot of coffee, haven't eaten very much, but so far, I'm OK.


SWEENEY: For more on the coverage of this story, I'm joined from Washington, D.C. by CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr, and here in London by Fran Unsworth, the head of news gathering at the BBC.

Barbara Starr in Washington, how has this story played out, if at all, in the U.S.?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Fionnuala, it's actually not gotten a lot of attention in the United States, but the U.S. military is well aware that this entire story has strained relations with the U.K. and with the British military. The Pentagon was slow in responding to a lot of reporters' questions when "The Sun" published the video, when they put it on their website. The Pentagon was very slow in saying exactly what had transpired here.

They claim that they did not try and keep the video under wraps, that by all accounts, it was given to British authorities, British military authorities, who participated in the initial inquiry at the time of the incident. Of course, the question is when did the British coroner, when did British civil authorities request the video? And how fast was the Pentagon in responding to that request?

SWEENEY: And in terms of your journalistic colleagues at the Pentagon, Barbara, how aware were they of this as a story when "The Sun" publicized that video footage?

STARR: Well, you know, with the Internet and video now really moving across the Internet, I think everyone was well aware of it. I think people were fascinated as they always are when they have a glimpse into what really happened in the cockpit when pilots are in combat, when there is the fog of war, and when tragically, these incidents of friendly fire occur. And a pilot in the cockpit gets the worst possible news that they have killed one of their allies, not the enemy.

It was a fascinating look at what happens in a cockpit, Fionnuala.

SWEENEY: Fran Unsworth is head of news gathering at the BBC. What was your initial reaction when you saw the video publicized or heard about it publicized on "The Sun" website?

FRAN UNSWORTH, BBC: Well, obviously, we knew that the video was in existence, because it had been the subject of the coroner's inquest the previous week when the coroner of South Oxford took over in Hungary with the MOD for not producing it there because he knew of its existence, too.

So our efforts then became to try and get a hold of this video ourselves. And all credit to "The Sun" for a great scoop. They came up with this leak themselves.

Now obviously, we heard about it the previous evening. They were running it the next day and releasing it to media outlets from 5:00.

So we went through a few checks and balances of our own to ensure that we were happy running it. But by and large, we were because as Barbara said, it was incredibly revealing about actually what took place in the cockpit.

SWEENEY: And were you wary at all about running video that essentially had not been declassified?

UNSWORTH: Well, I think that our first principle here is to look at what is the public interest argument for running it. And we weighed out those decisions and decided there was an overwhelming public interest argument in running it.

As far as the classification - declassification is concerned, well, first of all, the coroner had wanted it produced in court. So there's a certain kind of authority the coroner kind of had in the process there.

But secondly, we were also aware that "The Sun" newspaper had, in fact, told the MOD that they had this video. So the MOD themselves had had possibly as much as 24 hours to take out an injunction if they felt that this really was not in the interests of national security.

So we were not that worried, because we knew this actually - there were checks and balances in place, which the MOD could have gone through in order to prevent this material coming out, which they didn't use.

SWEENEY: That's the reaction of the MOD. Barbara Starr, what was the reaction in the Pentagon to the release of this video that had not been declassified? And how cooperative did you find the Pentagon on the day gathering the story?

STARR: Well, I think the video took them by surprise. I don't think here that they realized "The Sun" had it, and that this level of detail would ever come out in the public media.

Clearly, this classified video was originally given to British authorities as part of the investigation to British military authorities at the Ministry of Defense. It was not expected to ever be seen in public.

So they were behind the curve. There's just no question. And you know, that is the real lesson here of reporting these days. The Internet, some of these video websites, it's the government that's going to be constantly playing catch up. This is a case of where that clearly happened.

SWEENEY: In terms of the relationship between the media and the British authorities here when it comes to declassified information at a time of war, there are those who argue that the lines have become increasingly blurred here in this country since the beginning of the Iraq War. Would you agree?

UNSWORTH: Well, I don't know whether that's the case or not. And I think at the BBC, we would always start from the point of view of if by showing this material, whether it's classified or not, are we endangering anybody's life?

And I think that we reached the conclusion that no, we weren't in this case.

SWEENEY: So it hasn't set a precedent?

UNSWORTH: I don't think so, no. And another point to make here is that the bits that the Pentagon regarded on the MOD regarded as the bit which was potentially dangerous to others was this question of the orange panels on military hardware. They didn't want the enemy to know that that's what they used, but apparently, this is actually on the MOD's own website if you look carefully for it.

SWEENEY: We have to leave it there, ladies. Fran Unsworth here in London and Barbara Starr at the Pentagon or near the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., anyway thank you very much indeed for joining us.

SWEENEY: Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, the global threats to journalism. We look at how doing our job has become more dangerous than ever. Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. Targeted assassinations, a culture of impunity, and so-called democratic dictators, all identified as major threats to the press in an annual report by the committee to protect journalists.

Russia and Venezuela come under scrutiny, but it's Iraq that remains the most dangerous country.

Well, to discuss this further, I'm joined from New York by CPJ executive director Joe Simon. And here in London by Michael Fletcher, of "The New Yorker."

Joel Simon, any surprises in this year's annual report?

JOEL SIMON, CPJ EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: I mean, I think one surprise, although everyone recognizes that Iraq is an extraordinary violent conflict for the press, this - 32 journalists were killed in Iraq last year. That's the single deadliest year we've ever recorded in one country in our 25 year history.

So that's an extraordinary record. And it's also important to keep in mind that most of the journalists who are being killed in Iraq are Iraqis. 30 of the 32, in fact. And most of them are not killed in crossfire. They're targeted for murder.

SWEENEY: Targeted for murder. And what do you believe is the prognosis for journalists working in Iraq in 2007, any better?

SIMON: I'm afraid not. I mean, I think that what essentially what you're seeing is these Iraqi journalists are the eyes and ears of the

FLETCHER: Well, I'm glad that he acknowledges what is obviously the case. But it should be noted that for the first three days after she was murdered brutally in Moscow, he said nothing. And when he did speak, it was only because he was speaking publicly in Germany. And he had no choice but to speak. And what he said was horrifyingly cold.

So yes, I'm glad that he's acknowledged the truth, but it's a little bit late.

SWEENEY: Joe Simon in New York, your affair recently in this report to what you call democratators. What do you mean?

SIMON: Basically what I think has happened is, you know, in the aftermath of the Cold War, you need to present yourself as a democrat to have any international legitimacy.

And so, you're seeing leaders who express rhetorical support for democracy, who present themselves to the world at democrats, but who have, in some cases, contempt for the institutions of democracy, including the press, and undermine them using legal means and bureaucratic means. And that's a troubling phenomenon in many parts of the world.

SWEENEY: Michael Fletcher, I see you nodding?

FLETCHER: Well, I agree. And I think it's important to remember that as horrible as it is when journalists are treated badly and are killed, they're really a symbol of the way society is treated by the governments of these countries. And that's what's so troubling to me.

And one of the things that's so troubling about Anna Politkovskya's death and these other killings is not so much that they happened, which is bad enough, but there's very little outrage. Very few people cared.

SWEENEY: Joe Simon, as you look into your crystal ball for 2007 and beyond, is there any country in the world or any scenario that gives you any cause for optimism?

SIMON: You know, I do see some areas for optimism. I do think that, you know, there are a lot of issues in play. The Internet is in play. What is the future of the Internet? I think there was a time when people believed it was not controllable. I don't think anyone believes that anymore.

But I think there's a real struggle going on in the future of the Internet as a means of expression. It's going to be determined in the coming years.

SWEENEY: All right, gentlemen, there we must leave it. Joe Simon in New York, Michael Fletcher here in London, thanks very much indeed.

FLETCHER: Thank you.

SWEENEY: Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, a glimpse into the world of Hunter F. Thompson. We tour a gallery of photographs by the legendary journalist. Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. He pioneered what became known as gonzo journalism, living life on the edge and famously writing about his experiences.

Now a new book and exhibition reveals another side of Hunter F. Thompson, his talent for photography. I took a tour of the gallery.


SWEENEY: This is him writing some of his earlier pieces, just starting out in his career. At what point did he evolve gonzo journalism? And how would you define it?

MICHAEL HOPPEN, GALLERY OWNER: It's an interesting question. Gonzo journalism, I mean, it's in the Oxford English dictionary today, is a type of journalism where the protagonist is the journalist, is the personality in question, is the person driving the story forth.

This piece comes from the run diaries. And again, Hunter features heavily in the story. How he decided that that was the way to progress...

SWEENEY: This, of course, is a very well known photograph. What do you think he was trying to say in that soft portrait?

HOPPEN: Very much power to his gonzo journalism style. He was at the center of fear and loathing in Las Vegas. Without Hunter in the story, there was no story.

SWEENEY: He was really in his heyday as America was in its heyday. It's almost - it's kind of golden period. How much do you think that might have had to do with his suicide? Because some say his health was failing, and he couldn't bear to see his health failing. Do you think there's a parallel with how he thought America was going?

HOPPEN: I don't know him well enough to be able to answer that question. I wouldn't want to answer it on behalf of him.

What I do know is he looks like a very satisfied man in all the pictures. And I mean, you know, who can't be. I mean, there's your office. Who else would want an office different to that?

So this was one of the most popular pictures at the opening. And we call the horror, the earning morning horror. And I think who's woken up with a hungover recognizes themselves in this picture.

SWEENEY: Let me look at this comment here, because I think in some ways it quite defines him. He says I hadn't adjusted too well to society. I was in jail for the night of my high school graduation, but I learned at the age of 15 that to get by, you had to find the one thing you can do better than anyone else, at least this was so in my case.

Do you think that's what continued to drive him perhaps...

HOPPEN: Absolutely.

SWEENEY: ...some people would say excess?

HOPPEN: Yes, absolutely. He was never prepared to settle for just basic journalism. He was always somebody wanted to produce articles that really bit. When you read some of the early pieces, and those wonderful early cuttings in this book of some of the pieces he wrote for "Rolling Stone" and others, he really did go for the jugular.

You can see from this particular picture here, one of the very first Hell's Angels pictures, he's very competent. You look at the camera angle, you look at the composition, you look at the exposure, you look at the fact that he's using a shutter speed, which allows you to see some of the motion in the wheel.

This is a story. I mean, he wrote a story about the Hell's Angels. Very few people got close to the Hell's Angels. He was very fortunate not to be killed. He was beaten up by them. He got very close. And he says his biggest mistake was getting drunk with them.

This is one of my personal favorite pictures from the show. It's called "Fishing with Guns." We have not been able to find out who the two guys were on the trip, but they were friends of hunters. And again, it's Big Sur in California. It's about two hours south of San Francisco.

And what more can one say? I mean, that's a terrible thing to go out and do, especially with guns. And to me, this is about as good as it gets. And I'm not talking about his photography. I just mean about him being able to capture that moment that says, well, you don't - I don't really see anything about this picture. Know that this is somebody very close to him.

You know, it's a very intimate moment, but it - you can feel the heat. You can smell the burned grass. The color palate, I don't know why, just feels '60s to me. I'm convinced if you go to that spot today, it's just not going to look the same. There's bound to be signs saying, you know, no walking or not trespassing. There's bound to be fences. There's bound to be something in the scene.

I don't know, it just looks like the Garden of Eden to me. Perfect, perfect day.


SWEENEY: And that is 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 Fionnuala Sweeney. Thanks for joining us.



CNN TV E-mail Services CNN Mobile CNNAvantGo Ad Info About Us Preferences
© 2007 Cable News Network LP, LLLP.
A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines. Contact us. Site Map.
Offsite Icon External sites open in new window; not endorsed by
Pipeline Icon Pay service with live and archived video. Learn more
Radio News Icon Download audio news  |  RSS Feed Add RSS headlines