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BBC Cuts News Division; American Journalists' Self-Obsession; Press Freedom in the World

Aired October 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 examine how the media are covering the big stories.
This week, the ax falls on the BBC. The corporation announced that major cuts to news and factual programming. Also coming up, the state of the world when it comes to press freedom. We map out the best and the worst countries. Plus, saving the planet. Why the media needs rescuing, according to journalist turned author Mort Rosenblum.

Well, after months of speculation, the BBC has announced widespread, budget cuts, which will result in a net loss of 1800 jobs. News and factual production are to be hardest hit under the reform program, which will also see the BBC's television center in London sold off.

An estimated 2,500 positions will be slashed over six years. But BBC chiefs say the impact on staff will be lessened by new investments that will create jobs and natural staff turnover. The cuts come as the public broadcaster attempts to fill a $4 billion budget deficit.

Earlier, I spoke to the BBC's deputy director general Mark Byford. I asked, given the corporation is renowned for its news and programming, why the cuts are targeting those areas.


MARK BYFORD, DEPUTY DIRECTOR-GENERAL, BBC: If the BBC is getting a letter license (INAUDIBLE) than it had hoped for, and he's searching for efficiency, its journalistic organization is the backbone of the organization. It can't be immune from efficiency.

We're looking at where we can reduce duplication, where we can promote multimedia working, so that we can invest for the future in our interactive and our online work, and make the BBC's journalism actually even stronger in the long term.

If the BBC stood still, if the BBC did nothing, our audiences, particularly younger audiences, would move away. And what we want to do is to ensure that the content that we bring, you're right, high quality distinctive programming can then be made available on all the platforms that our audiences want to get as access to us.

SWEENEY: A former BBC colleague was telling me just a few moments ago that, for example, the domestic services really is two, three, four and five have different news bulletins compiled by different producers. I mean, is that something that you're looking at? Or is it your commitment to high distinctive quality programming that requires you to have different news bulletins at the top of the hour presented and also compiled by different producers?

BYFORD: Well, nobody's saying here, including me as the head of the journalism, that the BBC's services must have homogeneity of sound. It must all sound the same, that the same bulletin for radio two, as it is for radio five live, as it would be for the world service. Of course not.

We want to ensure that our different audiences get a BBC use that is tailored to their agenda and to their liking.

SWEENEY: But presuming that is somewhere could cut money.

BYFORD: But it also means - if I may say - it also means that we're absolutely under a duty to look at in that journalistic organization where can we find efficiencies, so that we can invest in the new technologies for the long term.

We have found that we can reduce duplication. We should, as a broadcaster, always involved in TV, radio, and online, reorganize ourselves for the digital age into a multimedia outfit. CNN, by the way, does exactly the same thing. All broadcasting organizations are doing this as an end to the digital age. It means that the commitment to quality and distinctiveness to our global agenda with correspondents around the whole world and intelligence agenda continues.

What we want to do, though, is to be able to be as lean and as strong value for money as we possibly can be for the people that own the BBC, which is the public of the United Kingdom.

SWEENEY: And of course, CNN does do the same thing, but CNN is totally and wholly reliant on advertising. And the question is this has all come about because the government refused to increase the license fee to the BBC's satisfaction. So do you feel as an organization that you're constantly being undermined financially?

BYFORD: No, we don't. We recognize that it's a privilege to have the license fee. It's a privilege that everybody around the United Kingdom funds the BBC. But the license payer expects the BBC to be focused on high quality content. And it also expects the BBC to be making the money that's given to us to be squeezed such that we produce as much value as we possibly can in content.

And that's what delivering creative future is about.


SWEENEY: Mark Byford speaking to me earlier. Well, for more on the impact of the BBC job cuts and what they mean for the future of the corporation, I'm joined by Charlie Beckett, the director of POLIS, the journalism think tank of the London School of Economics.

Why particularly journalists? I mean, the BBC is such a huge organization with so many different interests and departments. And as I put it to Mark Byford, known around the world, particularly for its news and journalism. So why would journalists be the first - or as we expect, be the most that will be - take a brunt of the cuts? I mean, is it warranted?

CHARLIE BECKETT, DIRECTOR, POLIS: Well, I think at one level, it certainly is because in fact, the BBC has taken years to get anywhere near catching up with other broadcasters in journalistic organizations who realize all these benefits from new technology and multi skilling means that you should be leaner and meaner. Why does it take them so long to get to that point?

But I do, on the other hand, I think there is a sense that why pick on that core value that the BBC stands for, and that it does best, and is the one thing that they are going to need, whatever else they do in the future is their news?

And I think that it's a missed opportunity. They seem to be picking on the journalists and not taking hard decisions about other parts of the BBC.

SWEENEY: Where should the BBC be focusing now in terms of its journalism and its direction? And is new technology going to account for most of the job losses?

BECKETT: I think so. And if you look at most broadcasting organizations, they have actually lost more jobs on the technical side than the editorial side.

But the environment that we're all moving into, a more digital online environment, does - you do not need 20 BBC producers at every court case or every international summit. You're much able to replicate what you do.

And I think in that sense, the BBC's right to send this big signal to their staff, get online, get digital. That's where the money's going.

SWEENEY: And do you think in terms of the BBC's future, is it being squeezed by the government to go down more and more of a privatization route, something Mark Byford denies?

BECKETT: I think privatization is in a sense a distraction that I cannot believe that the BBC funding system will be the same in 10 years, possibly as soon as five years. But that's as much to do with going online and finding different models to show people that you're giving them value, as it is about the idea that somehow anyone's going to buy the BBC.

SWEENEY: Tony Beckett, thank you very much.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, the results are in. The countries rated best and worst when it comes to press freedom. Find out who tops the list and those rated lowest when we return.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. Freedom of the press, it's something journalists and most European countries appear to enjoy. Think again if you're working in Eritrea. It's been ranked the worst violator of media freedom in an annual index released by the group Reporters Without Borders.

Out of 169 countries, Eritrea tops the list of offenders, followed by North Korea, Turkmenistan, Iran, Cuba, Myanmar or Burma. Then there's China and Vietnam.

Well, those rated best for freedom of the press include Iceland, Norway, Estonia, Slovakia, Belgium, Finland, Sweden and Denmark.

It's worth noting the U.S. came in at 48 spot. The U.K. was ranked 24th. France, 31st. And Russia was 144th.

Let's get more on the press freedom list now. For that, we turn to Jean Francois Julliard, the head of research with Reporters Without Borders. He's in Paris.

Also with us from Miami is Jeffrey Gedmin, the president of Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty.

Jean-Francois Julliard, let's look at some of the figures. The United States ranked 48th. Is that a surprise?

JEAN-FRANCOIS JULLIARD, REPORTERS WITHOUT BORDERS: Yes, it's a surprise because we thought that a huge country like United States would be in the - at the head of the index, but there are still some problems of freedom of expression in the U.S. I mean, some journalists have been arrested and sent on to court because they were obliged to reveal their sources.

And there is also one major problem in the U.S. It is that U.S. authorities are still keeping journalists in prison in Guantanamo Bay. A journalist from al Jazeera is detained for five years now. And we're still asking for his release.

SWEENEY: And how does the war in Iraq impact on the freedoms of journalists to the U.S.?

JULLIARD: Yes, of course, the situation is much different. I mean, there is a real plurality of information of media as in Iraq. Really much more important than it was during the Saddam years, but the problem for Iraqi media is now - is the safety - the secure situation.

I mean, more than 200 journalists have been killed in Iraq since the beginning of the war in March 2003. It is the most dangerous country for journalists all over the world.

SWEENEY: Jeffrey Gedmin in Miami, I mean, Radio Free Europe has had its particular problems in terms of freedom of movement, freedom of its journalists to work. Give us a few examples, if you would?

JEFFREY GEDMIN, PRESIDENT, RADIO FREE EUROPE/RADIO LIBERTY: Well, we, as you know, are broadcasting radio, television, and doing Internet work in 28 languages in two dozen countries. And we're covering an area that starts at Russia, goes down through central Asia, and then into the Middle East, including Iran.

I'll give you one example. Until recently, we had one of our journalists, who had been detained in Iran for eight months for a very simple reason. This woman, Nazia Seema (ph), went home in January to visit her 94-year old mother. And they blocked her. They blocked her because she was working for independent media outside the country, broadcasting into Iran, and doing what she should do, basically providing news and information that the government of Iran is denying its own people.

At the end of the day, we've got examples. There's a terrific report by Reporters Without Borders. But the end of the day, you still have strangely enough in 2007, dozens and dozens of countries that understand that free media is oxygen for civil society. They don't like it. They do what they can to cut it off.

SWEENEY: In terms of the example you gave us, though, Jeffrey Gedmin, Iran is fourth from the bottom of the list in terms of press freedoms in this report compiled by Reporters Without Borders. It's slipped at 166. Let me clarify. Your journalist was in Iran visiting her mother. Was she working?

GEDMIN: No, our journalist went. She's Iranian-American dual citizen. She traveled to her home country of Iran to visit an ailing mother, but because of her profession.


GEDMIN: .as a journalist, and because of her work in supplying Iranians - by the way, she reports on soft politics and culture mostly. She's a literary translator. Because of that, that's why she was detained.

But she was there purely on private business visiting a sick mother.

SWEENEY: And Jean Francois in Paris, how do you begin to gather your organization, the facts and figures about what's taking place in each country in terms of press freedoms?

JULLIARD: Actually, we established a questionnaire with 50 criterias. We tried to evaluate a number of physical attacks against journalists like arrests, murders, threats and so on. But we also tried to evaluate economic pressures and also violation of press freedom on the Internet.

And then we asked a lot of people or local correspondent, local journalist, lawyers, unionists, defenders of press freedom to feel this questionnaire, to - for their country. And then we gather all these datas and establish the index.

SWEENEY: Jeffrey Gedmin in Miami, I mean, given the origins of Radio Free Europe, I'm wondering how much of the ethos that is behind the name Radio Free Europe impacts on your journalists working overseas in countries where press freedoms are somewhat restricted?

GEDMIN: Well, we have - frankly, we have our own debate about the name. The name is a little bit out of date. We're doing radio, but also television and also Internet. And it sounds admittedly, we are a gift of the American people actually. We're funded by the U.S. Congress. It sounds admittedly a bit missionary.

But I'll tell you what. At the end of the day, we don't exist if there's no market for us. And we're reaching about 35 million people in these two dozen countries. And at the end of the day, it's kind of simple. All we provide is accurate news, objective information, and responsible discussion. And in each and every country where we broadcast, there's a very simple way to put us out of business immediately. Free up media, free up and allow a competitive press, and then we're done. We have no raison d'etre. We close, we're out.

SWEENEY: Jean-Francois, a final question to you. I mean, when one looks down the list of the countries, the top 10 countries in terms of press freedoms, they're all Scandinavian countries or European countries with relatively small populations. I'm thinking of Norway, Slovakia, Ireland, Portugal, Denmark. Do you notice this as a common trend when determining press freedoms? Are there socio-economic factors obviously pertaining to the ranking of the countries?

JULLIARD: Yes, actually, there is a big tradition of democratic values in all these countries. It's not the first time. Usually every year, Scandinavian countries are the first countries, because there are no political pressure, no economic pressure on these countries. Very minor violations to press freedom, but journalists are free to speak about every topic they want. They can investigate about everything they want. So it's a kind of - yes, a kind of haven for journalists.

SWEENEY: All right. Well, we have to leave it there, but thank you both very much indeed. Jeffrey Gedmin joining us from Miami and from Paris Jean-Francois Julliard.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, saving the world. It's an ambitious assignment, to say the least, but one that journalists Mort Rosenblum is taking on. We find out how he plans to go about it after the break.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. His role as a foreign correspondent took him to more than 200 countries, reporting on subjects from wars, famine, and earthquakes.

Now after four decades, Mort Rosenblum is taking on his most ambitious assignment yet, saving the world.

To achieve that, he says the media needs rescuing from what he calls "its narrow vision." And news organizations need to be better equipped to inform people, especially those in the United States of what's happening around the globe.

"Escaping Plato's Cave: How America's Blindness to the Rest of the World Threatens Our Survival" is Mort Rosenblum's latest book. He joins me now from Washington.

Thank you very much indeed for joining us. Interesting title, "Escaping Plato's Cave."

MORT ROSENBLUM, JOURNALIST, AUTHOR: Well, you know, it's interesting. I kind of took it, I mean, I - it's kind of hard to figure out if you don't know the parable, but if you really think about it, 23 centuries after Plato imagined his prisoners, you know, staring at a cave wall with their backs to reality, we're almost in the same situation.

SWEENEY: And in terms of writing this book, who is it aimed at? Is it aimed at the rest of the world? Or is it aimed primarily at the United States?

ROSENBLUM: Well, it's mostly American readers, but certainly it applies around the world. I mean, I've written two earlier books on, you know, on the press and on the problems of the press. And I started this one. And I thought well, wait a minute. We can't just start, you know, bad mouthing the press in some big, you know, the media and some big overall generality. I mean, some of it's good, some of it's bad.

But the real thing, the real problem is what we're missing by not following what's going on. I mean, stuff like global warming, we've known about this for 20 years. I mean, stuff like now Blackwater's the big issue. We've known about outsourcing and these problems for years now.

And what we've got to do, I think, is sort of be aware of these problems, whether our traditional press is telling us or not.

SWEENEY: And I wonder how much of this is symbiotic? I mean, is the press in America media reflecting simply the culture of America and vice versa?

ROSENBLUM: Well, absolutely so. I mean, what's happening now is, you know, as the media's being dumbed down and bought up and run by managers as opposed to newspaper people and media people, you know, this whole new class of management that just doesn't get it is trying to out guess what they think is the reader's tastes.

And it's also coupled by all the new tools we have. I mean, the web is a wonderful, fabulous tool, but you know, it's also very limiting. If you set your browser, I mean you know every time Paris Hilton unzips her dress, you can get a news alert. But if Germany invades Poland, someone has to call you up.

SWEENEY: But if you talk about the web, and you mentioned the Internet and certainly the newspapers, if I may generalize perhaps incorrectly, seem to have adapted to the web a little bit better than perhaps some broadcast organizations.

The web, is that a tool for allowing Americans to come together, to make a difference? Or is it something that merely reflects their individualism and allows them to communicate with people who only agree with them?

ROSENBLUM: Well, I mean, that - it's both. And I think the problem is - the real problem is since we don't have traditional media as we knew it, and as - we don't have the - you know, you can imagine, you know, the - any village anywhere, where the women gather in the morning around the well, and they discuss the day's events or the men are sitting there, you know, smoking whatever they smoke at lunchtime. And they trade facts.

And there's a certain basic knowledge that people have of events of the day. And then, you know, later on, they get embellished. And rumors start and things.

But we don't have a common font of knowledge. That's what we're really losing by not having a basic press.

SWEENEY: You know, if you read the press release for your book, it says Mort Rosenblum has watched in dismay as his own beloved country has allowed "soluble situations in remote back waters to escalate into world class calamity."

Presumably here, you're thinking of Iraq?

ROSENBLUM: Well, that's certainly one of them. But I'm thinking there's lots of stuff. I mean, we - just before - before we decided to invade Iraq, I mean, not a lot of Americans could have found the place on a map. Quite frankly, a lot still can't. We get.

SWEENEY: Well, let me jump in there, because the point I'd like to raise is.


SWEENEY: .couldn't have found the place on a map. I mean, how much is that the media's responsibility and not the education system of the United States?

ROSENBLUM: Well, but see, but it isn't just the media. It is partly the education. It's partly a lot of things. And I mean, that's what "Escaping Plato's Cave" is about. That's what - that's, as I say, rather than write a book about the media and the press, this is much more. This is about the whole system.

This is, you know, I come up with a bunch of, you know, suggested things that we might do at the end. But you know, people ask me. They say, well, how do we solve it? And you know, and the answer is if you want a solution that's going to be by next Thursday, or by next November, there really is none.

But it's a much larger problem because we're really at the end of our leeway. We - the problems we face now are - really do threaten our survival. I mean, our homes, our planet's in serious risk. Our politics are in serious trouble.

So yes, education's an - a terribly important part of it. Public awareness in a lot of different ways are part of it. But the press and the media have got to really be sort of the guiding, you know, the guiding spirit, because that's really what links us.

SWEENEY: And of course, that is exactly what those citizen journalists, who particularly like to use the web, think that the newspapers shouldn't be a guiding beacon of life. I mean, it's almost as though it's back to the reinventing of the printing press in terms of how this evolves over the coming decades.

ROSENBLUM: But you know, reporter is a profession. Reporter takes training. Reporter takes a historical contingent. You don't talk about a, you know, a citizen knee surgeon. Or you don't talk about a, you know, a, you know, a citizen, you know, biochemist. It's - citizen journalism's really important. And it really helps us out. And it's - but it really - it's more, you know, like the person that used to phone into the newspaper, now the person that contributes news, film, or you know, tape or footage to television. It's a part of the process, but it can't be the process.

You need professionals that have - that can question sources, that can find the other side, that can find the holes, that know how to check things, that know how to get back to put it into a larger context. This was a very difficult thing.

And once you just throw stuff out on the web, just being there, being there's not enough. You really have to understand it.

SWEENEY: There we must leave it. Mort Rosenblum, thank you very much indeed.

ROSENBLUM: Thank you. It was a great pleasure.

SWEENEY: And that is 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.