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McCann Family PR Offensive; Reporting from Iraq; Kasparov and Russian Politics

Aired September 21, 2007 - 20:30:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Fionnuala Sweeney in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we turn the spotlight on the media.
This week, the parents of missing Madeleine McCann go on a PR offensive. We look at their efforts to control the direction of the story.

The news from Iraq. We speak to two time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist John Burns.

And later, he's back in the headlines. The reporting frenzy over O.J. Simpson.

First, the media and the case of missing Madeleine McCann, a story that has dominated countless column mentions and television news bulletin in Portugal and Britain for more than four months. With few details released by authorities, much of the reporting has been based on leaks or speculation.

Now the parents of the child have recruited a new family spokesman to help present their side of the story. Emily Chang reports.


EMILY CHANG, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Kate and Gerry McCann follow closely behind their new front man, as he makes his first statement outside their home.

CLARENCE MITCHELL, MCCANN FAMILY SPOKESMAN: And I feel so strongly that they are the innocent victims of a heinous crime.

CHANG: This on yet another day when speculation about what happened to Madeleine continues to swirl and media coverage of the case goes round the clock.

(on camera): What do you have to say about speculation that Kate and Gerry are somehow involved in Madeleine's disappearance?

MITCHELL: It's just not true to suggest that they harmed their daughter. They love their daughter as they love their other twins. And to somehow suggest, even indirectly, that they were responsible for her disappearance or even her death, if you know them, you realize that is just ludicrous.

CHANG: In his former role as media advisor to the British government, Mitchell spent time with the McCanns in Portugal, just after Madeleine went missing. Sometimes he said up to 14 hours a day.

MITCHELL: They didn't expect some of the coverage to turn the way it did. And they are relieved to be home now. They - and as a result, they're getting stronger. They - today, they're quite positive in fact. Of course, there's the constant reminder that Madeleine isn't there, but you know, they are dealing with that in their own way.

CHANG: And Mitchell says they will continue to do everything they can to find Madeleine.

Emily Chang, CNN, in Rovely, England.


SWEENEY: Debate 12 over how the media has covered the Madeleine McCann story. To assess that, I'm joined in the studio by Rita Jordao, the London correspondent with Portugal's Journal de Noticias and FIC TV and Charlie Beckett, the director of POLIS, the journalism think tank of the London School of Economics.

First of all, Rita, as a Portuguese journalist trying to cover this side of the story in Britain, what has been your experience?

RITA JORDAO, CORRESPONDENT, JORNAL DE NOTICIAS & SIC TV: I think it's been very hard for British journalists in Portugal. It's been very hard for Portuguese journalists over here because you're Portuguese and because this story has become so big.

It became quite difficult for Portuguese journalists to cover the story and to get information, especially from official sources, even though, I mean, what is an official source in this case, we don't any more. But we do. Now with Clarence Mitchell, things seem to be becoming a little bit easier for journalists. Now we finally have information regularly. And hopefully, we will. And that's - up until now, it's been very difficult, very hard to get any information.

SWEENEY: Clarence Mitchell, of course, being the person who was appointed initially by the government as the conduit to help the McCanns with their publicity that now actually has resigned his job. And there has been, has there not, Charlie Beckett, a complete distinct change in the coverage of the McCanns in terms of what they're putting forward for their defense through the media since he came on board full time again just a few days ago?

CHARLIE BECKETT, DIRECTOR, POLIS: Well, I think Clarence is a great appointment all around. He's a very respected and a straight experienced reporter.

So he's going to have the sympathy of the news media in Britain, but also the international media. But I think he's also going to have the respect of the wider public. This is somebody who's trusted so from the McCanns point of view. He's a very good appointment. And it may bring some clarity.

But it's - in a sense, just another part of what has been a whole sort of public relations exercise. I don't mean that in a disparaging way. What I mean is that this has been extraordinary media event from the Day One. And in a sense, quite rightly, the McCanns have attempted to, if you like, use the media and control it so that they don't end up as victims of the media.

SWEENEY: And how effective has doing that been for them?

BECKETT: Well, I think it's the old adage. You know, those that live by the media can, if you like, die by the media. It's a very dangerous game to play. But I think from their point of view, they would say, look, they've been as honest as they can be. They've been as accessible as they can be. And they've tried to tell their side of the story. And I think that's all that you can expect from people embroiled in such an appalling situation.

SWEENEY: Rita Jordao, as a Portuguese journalist, do you feel that the media in your country correctly judged how the story was going and reported how the story was going?

JORDAO: I think it's been very difficult for the Portuguese media. I mean, even though we're used to dealing with the way the Portuguese police operate in the country, in this case, it's - the story has become international from day one. It's a Sky story from day one. And therefore, the Portuguese police kind of got a bit - the Portuguese press, sorry, kind of got a bit lost amongst this whole story.

I mean, there's no official information. Everybody needs to get something new today, because that's press. And the newspapers want to get, even if it's the small bit of information that the others don't have.

SWEENEY: But most of the information was coming from leaks in the Portuguese authorities to the Portuguese media. And then, hence, you know, reported in the British media.

JORDAO: Yes, but when we call sources within the Portuguese police, I don't know exactly what we're talking about. This could be a clean (INAUDIBLE). This could be an accountant that works for the Policia (INAUDIBLE). We don't really know who these sources are. And especially for some of the more tabloids of newspapers.

Do we trust them? I don't know.

SWEENEY: At the end of the day, it did lead to Madeleine McCann's parents being named formal suspects. And that was always something that was more or less consistently reported in the run-up to that in the Portuguese media.

How do you think the British media have covered this in the very twists and turns, one has noticed changes in temperament and tone?

BECKETT: Well, I think in defense of the tabloid British press, you could argue that the early criticism of them that they were going over the top on this story was actually wrong. This was an incredible story. There's another criticism of them, which was that they were too pro the McCanns. And also, that they were too hostile to the Portuguese police.

Well, I suspect that they may have been right to have been critical of the Portuguese police, not just because of the investigation, but in terms of the way that this relatively small regional police force was completely unprepared for the way they should or could have handled the British media.

SWEENEY: Well, there is something about the British media, the pack abroad that's rather frightening for the inexperienced...

BECKETT: It's not unknowing. We know that by now. Most international authorities should know that by now. And in a sense, the Portuguese press has not been greatly more distinguished than the British tabloids. So it's not just a British disease.

And I think what's interesting is the way - whether the story is part a legal problem the Portuguese police have, but the way that the story has been allowed to spiral out of control, that would never have happened in this country. Big cases like the (INAUDIBLE) cases. So the police have a strategy...


BECKETT: ...for trying to manage media speculation.

JORDAO: I think international factor is very important here. And I think there's been a rivalry between the Portuguese press and the British press. And that's what spans a lot of things, because whilst the British press was pointing a finger at the Portuguese police, the Portuguese press was pointing the finger at the McCanns. And therefore, and because that added to the fact that there was no official information, people need to - or the press needs to pick out little beyond little details.

I'll give you the simple example. In Portugal, for instance, the name McCann became almost an obsession. And some Portuguese journalists thought because everybody believed that the McCanns have got a lot of influence in Downing Street somehow.

It kind of became an obsession. We need to find out who these...

SWEENEY: People.

JORDAO: ...who these people are. We need to find out whether the link is. And there's been so many lies...


JORDAO: ...printed in the last couple of weeks.

SWEENEY: I suspect they'll be a lot of doctorates done on this in the future. And indeed, more as time spent by us looking after it in the next few weeks and months as it evolves.

Rita Jordao, Charlie Beckett, thank you both very much indeed.

Still to come on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, reporting from a war zone. We speak to Pulitzer Prize winning journalist John Burns about his climb in Iraq and the challenges that lie ahead. That's next.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. For the past five years, Iraq has been his base. As Baghdad bureau chief for "The New York Times," John Burns has witnessed events leading up to the war and during the ongoing occupation. His work over the years has earned him two Pulitzer Prizes. One in 1993 for his coverage of the war in both Bosnia Herzokovnia, and then in 1997 for his reporting on the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Now John Burns is taking on a new challenge in what hopefully will be a more peaceful posting as "The New York Times" London bureau chief. John Burns joins me now.

Welcome to Britain, John Burns. I wonder, as you leave Iraq, what your thoughts are about the state of the country there.

JOHN BURNS, NEW YORK TIMES: Well, it looked pretty dire, I have to say. We all hoped, of course, journalists have hearts. And we all hoped that we would see a turnaround, things turning for the better.

There has been some improvement as General Petraeus reported in Washington. But overall, the prospects do not look good.

SWEENEY: And without delving too much into your personal life, is it the kind of story in Iraq that you would like to have seen through? Or do you believe there may not be any end to this ongoing situation?

BURNS: Well, five years is a long time to be in a place like that. I think I felt, and "The New York Times" felt, it was probably best for a change. And whilst I would love to have seen the war through, and my heart aches for Iraq, now I'm gone, there was no way of knowing, as the people in the United States know only too well, how long this could go on.

It could be another five years or more before American troops are finally withdrawn. And that would have obviously been too long.

So one has to make that kind of a wise judgment at certain point about how long to stay at the gaming table. And for me, that point came at the end of the summer.

SWEENEY: And into - being at the gaming table, how did it work logistically? Did you go in for periods of time and then come out for a bit of a break?

BURNS: Yes, we do. We take fairly generous breaks. We tend to stay on assignment in Iraq for, in my case, usually three, four, sometimes five months at a time.

And of course, we're pretty bunkered down there. And you really need to feel the need for a break for some fresh air, and for a golf course after that. So - and the "New York Times" has been very generous with us, as have most, I must say, Western media.

But all the same, I've spent - I would say three-quarters of the last five years in Baghdad. And it's a quite a wearing experience. But it's also, of course, an absolutely overwhelming experience, both emotionally and professionally.

SWEENEY: In terms of calibrating the story in Iraq, given that you've covered Bosnia Herzokovnia and the Taliban in Afghanistan, is there a distinction to be made between the three?

BURNS: Oh, yes, I think so. I think the two principle distinctions are the degree to which this weighs on the United States, the Taliban and Afghanistan was a big story. But I don't think there has been a bigger story, certainly not since Vietnam in my career, which now is running on towards 40 years in this business than Iraq. That's the first thing.

The second thing is in terms of protracted hazard for a journalist, Iraq is in a different league. There are episodic hazards of the kind of people encountered in Chechnya and Darfur. But for the most part, there aren't resident bases there. There are not bureaus in those places. People come and go rather quickly.

In Baghdad, you embed. You stay there.

SWEENEY: And at what point when you're on a tour of duty there, do you realize that it's time to leave? I mean, do you know yourself the warning signals in your head?

BURNS: No, I don't think you do, actually. I think a large responsibility for that rests with editors, because I think the sorts of changes, and I'm talking now about not so much things I've observed in myself, but have observed in others. I think some of the changes that people undergo when they're subjected to protracted stress of that kind and removal from anything like a normal life are quite negative. And that's a very good reason for getting out and returning to a more normal life.

We've all found, I find it too, the adjustment to normality strangely challenging. I've been saying in a glib way that I've found war a great deal easier to handle than peace.

Partly, that's because of the - something that is professionally very obvious. And that is this war is so dramatic, it marches under the front page all the time, affects the interests of the United States to the core, and thus, the story in some respects writes itself.

When you leave a story like that, for a story of importance, but one which is not so obviously dramatic and so compelling, you have to be a lot more imaginative in calibrating the story and deciding indeed what is the story. And that's the challenge that faces me here in England.

SWEENEY: Well, unfortunately, we're out of time. We have to leave it there, but John Burns, as always, thank you very much for joining us.

And still to come on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, O.J.'s back, back before the courts that is. Back in the headlines. We examine the media's obsession with the former U.S. football star when we return.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. An alleged robbery at a Las Vegas hotel wouldn't usually generate wall to wall media coverage in the U.S., but when it involves fallen NFL star O.J. Simpson, it seems we just can't get enough.

Simpson faces 11 charges over his involvement in an alleged robbery and kidnapping involving sports memorabilia he says was stolen from him. He was freed on bail on Wednesday, but the arrests have sparked a media circus reminiscent of the reporting frenzy of the early 1990s. That's when Simpson was tried and acquitted of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman in what was described as the trial of the century.

O.J. Simpson is due before the courts again on October 22nd. But the story is unlikely to disappear from the news radar between now and then. To help us make sense of it all, I'm joined by Howard Kurtz, media correspondent with "The Washington Post" and host of CNN's "Reliable Sources."

Well, I think an article you wrote earlier in the week, Howard, talks about the media squeeze more juice out of O.J. Really it is round 2 again.

HOWARD KURTZ, WASHINGTON POST: Round 2, d,j. vu, time war, take your pick. You know, this is a legitimate story. O.J. Simpson is the most famous murder defendant of our generation. A lot of people think he literally got away with murder in that case involving his ex-wife and her friend.

And for him to be resident behind bars in a bizarre alleged robbery attempt is absolutely legitimate news. But after the first two or three days when there weren't many new facts to report, television - cable television in particular here in the States, just went wild getting every lawyer, prosecutor, psychologist they could find, slapping them in the chair, and letting them argue about O.J.

SWEENEY: And I think as you put it in this article at the start, you wrote moments after President Bush announced his nominee for attorney general, the cable networks still put him for an old flame. O.J. was back. What does that say about the media obsession with celebrity in the United States?

KURTZ: Well, it's fascinating because O.J. Simpson, that case in 1994 and 1995 really ushered in the era of television fixated on celebrities and crime and sensationalism, not that this never existed before. But CNN's televising of that murder trial showed that it was ratings gold for television. So...

SWEENEY: And of course, it was the only...

KURTZ: ...all the other...

SWEENEY: at the time that was a cable network - CNN.

KURTZ: Exactly. But now we have more. And we have blogs and websites devoted to this sort of thing. And so here we are 12 or 13 years later, a lot of celebrity scandals later. I mean, you know, Britney and Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan are all big news on cable whenever they get into trouble. So O.J. is kind of like the golden oldies. Everybody could just open the rolodex and get their favorite legal commentators on the air and wallow in this once again, never mind that, you know, in the great scheme of things, country at war, economy in trouble, housing market great difficulty, it is not that important. But it has certainly grabbed the attention of everybody who puts on a television show.

SWEENEY: But there is some doubt, is there not, about whether or not public interest will be sustained as this trial continues like it was in the original O.J. - his original court case in 1993-94?

KURTZ: Sure. I think there's no question that there was an initial public fascination with this latest round involving Simpson, if only because this idea of him being accused of armed robbery, of going into a hotel room, and trying to get sports memorabilia back, that he claimed actually belonged to him, it's just so strange. And it was hard to unravel.

Plus, you had an audiotape. So all the networks could play again and again, bleeping out the expletives. O.J. saying up against the wall. Nobody leaves this room. I mean, you couldn't write a bad Hollywood movie that had elements like this.

But the question is after a week or two when there isn't a lot of new developments, is the public really going to be interested? Or are the media just going to beat this thing to death?

SWEENEY: I mean, a recent CNN opinion poll shows that a full 80 percent believe O.J. Simpson murdered Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. And 14 percent say they didn't.

Now this poll was conducted about a week before Simpson's recent arrest. So it still shows that it's very much on the radar of American public opinion.

But Howard, if I may move on in the time we have left, Dan Rather, the very famous CBS News anchor since retired, has filed a $70 million breach of contract lawsuit against his former network. What does that tell you? I mean, he left in rather dubious circumstances over an unsubstantiated report about President Bush's Vietnam War record, but is this a surprise?

KURTZ: It's an absolute shock. I mean, look, I knew - everybody knew that Dan Rather was mad at CBS for not renewing his contract. This was after - some time after he stepped down as the anchor after a quarter century coming into American homes.

And we also kind of had the impression that he had never had quite given up on that story, widely discredited, disputed documents from 30 years ago that he still believed that he was right in charging that President Bush had received favorable treatment from the National Guard during the Vietnam era.

But to turn around and sue the company that he worked for for 44 years, to drag this into court, to make all kinds of charges against CBS management claiming they were cow towing to the Bush White House in letting him go, just shows how extraordinarily bitter Dan Rather is toward his old network, and that he sees this litigation as an attempt somehow, some way to get some measure of vindication on this story that really kind of tarnished his reputation.

SWEENEY: Howard Kurtz with "The Washington Post." Thank you very much indeed for joining us.

And that's all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Tune again next time for another look at how the media are handling the big issues.

I'm Fionnuala Sweeney. Thanks for joining us.