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The Year in International Reporting

Aired January 4, 2008 - 20:30:00   ET


ADRIAN FINIGNAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, in London. I'm Adrian Finignan. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Each week, we speak to journalists from around the globe on how they cover the news.
This week, a look back at some of the issues and people we featured on the program in 2007.

We begin with a story that first broke in May and captured the hearts and emotions of the public around the world, particularly here in the U.K. It was the story of a British child who went missing from a holiday apartment in Portugal, while her parents dined at a nearby restaurant. The disappearance of Madeleine McCann sparked unprecedented interest. Even now, eight months on, British newspapers will run even the slightest development on their front page.

The media have been gripped from the start. Initially, when the girl's parents Kate and Jerry McCann began a publicity campaign, and then when they were named as formal suspects.

With few details released by investigators, much of the reporting have been based on leaks or speculation. Then in September, Kate and Jerry McCann appointed Clarence Mitchell as family spokesman to help present their side of the story. He was a former media advisor to the British government.

At the time, we examined the media's handling of the story. Fionnuala Sweeney spoke to Rita Jordao, the London correspondent with Portugal's Journal de Noticias at SIC TV and Charlie Beckett, the director of Polis, the journalism think tank at the London School of Economics.

He was asked about the change in the coverage of the McCann story since the appointment of Clarence Mitchell.


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 both 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. And 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.

FIONNUALA SWEENEY, HOST: 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?

RITA JORDAO, CORRESPONDENT, JORNAL DE NOTICIAS & SIC TV: 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 cleaner. 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 various 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 that it 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 that 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 and so on, where 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 a 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 where the link is. And there's been so many lies.


JORDAO: .printed.


FINIGNAN: That was Rita Jordao and Charlie Beckett there speaking with Fionnuala Sweeney back in September.

When we return, the world's worst humanitarian disaster and our interview with the filmmaker Phil Cox and his efforts to highlight the plight of children in Darfur. That's next.


FINIGNAN: Welcome back. It's been described as the world's greatest humanitarian disaster, the ongoing crisis in Darfur makes reporting the story extremely difficult for news and film crews.

Despite personal risks, there are still journalists committed to getting the story out. Phil Cox first traveled to Chad in 2003. He smuggled himself across the border into Darfur and captured images of the crisis that were beamed across the globe, pictures that earned him a Rory Peck International Impact Award a year later.

Phil Cox has returned several times to film the conflict, and has been working on a feature film on the children of Darfur. Fionnuala Sweeney spoke to him in May and asked what initially drew him to the crisis.

PHIL COX, DIRECTOR, NATIVE VOICE FILMS: I first came across it in 2003 in an Amnesty report that came out in middle of 2003. And it was quite strongly that the numbers that it was talking about, but nobody had picked up on it. And I took it to various news organizations that we should look at this, and try and get in. But everyone was interested in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So I found it myself. And (INAUDIBLE) stuff for politicians or media for about two years, since like 2002. So I went across the border and made contact with some of the rebel groups and saw some of the first images, the tens of thousands of people that were fleeing their own government across the border into Chad.

SWEENEY: And you continue to go back, obviously, throughout the years. Was it relatively easy to go in then to sit down when you first went and talked to rebels? How does it compare with now?

COX: I think one of the issues and complexities of Darfur is that it's very hard to report. It's a conflict that's not easy to see. It's not media friendly in that sense. And it's an area the size of France.

You have small scale issues and small pockets of violence. So for a journalist to go and see it and find it takes some weeks and weeks and long budget.

And the bigger news organizations often went from that. But for freelancers or people like myself, who are willing to put time in on the ground, we feel we can do that - well, that's our strength as a freelancer.

And I think over these last four years, it' changed in the sense that the Sudanese are definitely more media savvy, and that it's still just as hard to get in there. And they don't want media in there.

But it's still possible to access if you're determined.

SWEENEY: But you've taken extraordinary risks to go into Darfur, more than most people might be expected to, or might consider sane for them to do. What gives you that extra drive to take those increasingly dangerous risks?

COX: I do think it's a very important story to tell. It's something that I came to perhaps unintentionally and made very close contact, and worked with the story early on. And since then, I've kept very much in touch with people, and watched how the media has escalated interests and come up and down with the subject like Darfur.

At the beginning, it was very hard to get people interested. They didn't know what, you know, what is Darfur? Again, it's black Africans, you know, so what?

And then as the media machine starts to pick up, and they have, you know, some sound bytes to hang on the world's greatest humanitarian disaster, they start to have images to work with, then the whole world machine picks up.

And very quickly, it's fickle and drops off.

SWEENEY: But isn't that the nature of the media business, so to speak, that one story is always replaced by another story inevitably? And to quote a contributor on this program a couple of weeks ago, he quoted a former Tony Blair press person, I'm sure well known to you by name, Allistair Campbell, who said that a media story has about two weeks. So the question is isn't that what generally tends to happen in.

COX: When we raise these issues, and we're not talking about minor issues here, we're talking about things such as genocide. We're talking about massive large scale ethnic cleansing. You know, with men, women and children being killed. And I think freelance and the media, you know, yes, we have all our skepticism about the media, but we can also play a very positive role in that.

And we can try and keep it on the agenda. We can be inventive and find new ways to get this story out. And if we are like that, we can.

SWEENEY: So how have you done that?

COX: Well, I mean, I've been producing news stories from there for the last four years, last three years. And I found myself quite frustrated with what was in the media. So I've turned alternatively to cinema and started working on a feature film. And it's a story that I found about two years ago, two brothers and sisters, Darfurese children, and their escape across Darfur.

And I met these children two years ago in the desert. And I came back and I started to write a script of their story and what happened to them, and took it to feature producers here, because I became very tired of trying to keep the story on with traditional news media.

So this feature film, we just finished principle photography. It's a film that we're talking to many people about in America and here and generating a lot of interest. There's a lot of momentum, especially in America, about Darfur and the issue.

SWEENEY: And why do you think in America?

COX: I think the connection with America has come very much from black African lobbying and how it's being picked up and perceived on campuses and media celebrity and this issue of the U.S.-Sudan relations, where people have felt a lot closer to it in that sense.

SWEENEY: And what is it like as a filmmaker, as you're now, to try and shoot a feature film, as you said, in a war zone? I mean, how much cooperation have you had from the rebels, from the government, from the people themselves?

COX: To shoot is - while the conflict is happening, we're shooting just across the border in Chad. But of course the violence has now spread across the region. It's endemic in Chad.

But it's been very, you know, emotional the support we've had from the refugees and people recreating their own stories. It's a true story. The children are recreated from their own stories. And when I need 50 extras, 1,000 turn out. When we have a scene across the desert, we had almost 2,000 refugees turned out to recreate their march and exodus from Darfur. And it was very emotional. Some of these people have been through rape, torture. So it's not easy to ask them to do this, but they wanted to do it.

They were determined to stay in the world's eye. They know how important it is to stay in the media, to keep their story and what's happened to them on the world agenda.

They're very politicized, the Darfur refugees. And for me, working in the media, I so often see it's the masses. It's the quick one minute. There's no individuality. There's no personality. We're trying to bring the character and a face and a human being, which each of these refugees are, of course, across to an audience.

And that's why I've now started to turn to cinema and this feature film.


FINIGNAN: Phil Cox speaking to Fionnuala Sweeney back in May. For more filming for the production "The Lost Children of Darfur" is scheduled to take place in the next few months.

Up next on our INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS look back, the rise of the Internet and its impact on journalism. Is it good or bad for the industry? We revisit that topic when we return.


FINIGNAN: Welcome back. The world wide web is a useful tool for anyone wanting to find information on well, pretty much any topic. It also gives people the chance to voice their opinion through blogs and other interactive sites. Many of us in the news industry use the Internet in our news gathering whether it be for background or to utilize so-called user generated content.

This network, like others, has pictures and mobile phone videos from viewers to enhance coverage.

Well, given the increasing reliance on the Internet, what sort of impact is it having on traditional journalism? We delved into that topic in September with Tyler Brule, the editor and chief of "Monocle" magazine and Andrew Keen, author of "The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing our Culture and Assaulting our Economy."

Fionnuala Sweeney spoke to them both. She began by asking Andrew Keen to assess the mixed reaction that he initially received to his book.


ANDREW KEEN, AUTHOR, "THE CULT OF THE AMATEUR": Not everyone in mainstream media agrees with everything I'm saying. And I think the book itself is a little bit more sophisticated than simply bashing the Internet and building up mainstream media.

But the book makes two points. Firstly, it discusses the way in which too much of the content on the Internet is either corrupt, incompetent, inane, and narcissistic, or simply pointless.

And on the other hand, it points out that whilst the user generated revolution content going on on the Internet, mainstream media is in deep trouble. And you can't just blame the Internet for that.

The Internet is not destroying mainstream media, but part of the phenomenon is like two escalators, one going up, one going down. And the ultimate consequence of this is more and more user generated content, mainstream media having less and less economic viability. We're seeing the freefall collapse of the recorded music business. We're seeing newspapers, particularly in the U.S., close. We see storm clouds on the horizon, both on the television and the publishing and the movie industry.

So all in all, the ultimate consequence for consumers is less reliable information, more cacophony, more chaos on the Internet.

SWEENEY: Tyler Brule, mainstream media as well has its opinions than those who columnists who have their opinions. So really, there is an argument to be made that there isn't much of a difference. It's just the chattering class is holding on to the last bastion of their power?

TYLER BRULE, EDITOR IN CHIEF, MONOCLE MAGAZINE: I think there's a question of quality, though. I think what's interesting as well is that yes, we've seen this explosion of media. And there's more media outlets, more traditional media outlets as well. And I think when you cite that, you know, you can't just blame the web, it's very true because just because you've got more newspapers, more magazines, and you know, more TV channels, doesn't mean you've got more talented news editors, doesn't mean you've got, you know, other people whispering in your ear who really, you know, necessarily know their game. And I think that's also part of the problem as well.

I was in New York two weeks ago, talking to one of the deans from Columbia's School of Journalism. They said - they just despair looking at, you know, these new kids coming, because they said they're worried that they have nowhere to go. I mean, either you can sort of do the celebrity beat, or you can go and be on your own blog, but nothing in between.

SWEENEY: And how do you think that the traditional media, and I'm thinking of print journalism in particular, have adapted to the Internet ? Have they done a better job of adapting than perhaps broadcast media?

BRULE: Well, I think there's a lot of complaining going on in print media. And I think people, again, are just pointing to the web and saying oh, it's the web's fault that, you know, readership is sagging, that ad revenue is down. And I don't think that's the case. I think that a lot of, let's say the erosion quality in print media started long before the web.

And it - on one side, you can say it was because of mergers and of course, you know, shareholders depending more value potentially. That's one side of it. But again, also, you know, if you want to expand the newsstand, and there are not, you know, a new school of graduates coming out, then who's actually going to be sitting in the editor's chair? So that is part of the problem.

And you've seen, you know, magazines complaining. But on one side, you know, they're reducing paper quality. They're closing bureaus. There's less investment in journalism. So people do look elsewhere.

SWEENEY: Andrew Keen, what do you say to those who say that the web is fantastic for them because before all they would have had as a recourse to the mainstream media would have been writing a letter to the editor?

KEEN: I say to those people that your opinion is all very well, but for the majority of the 70 million bloggers who are essentially just people who have electronic diaries, their opinion is not very interesting to anyone except themselves.

If they really feel so strongly about understanding the world and commenting on the world, I would suggest that they go on apprentice at their local newspaper or radio show. Go and study journalism. Journalism is a profession. It's a trade. It's not something that anyone can do. Just because you have strong opinions doesn't make you into a journalist.

So what it makes you into a loud, opinionated and often extremely boring loud mouth.

SWEENEY: But there are some excellent blogs out there.

KEEN: There are. And they're very hard to find. That's the problem with the blogosphere.

SWEENEY: Are you talking about then the kind of civil discourse that we have on the Internet, where bloggers, you say, are talking about themselves, but also people are trying to talk to each other. And it is the very early days of the Internet, relatively speaking, Tyler?

BRULE: I think also talking at each other. I think that's also part of it. I'm not sure how much dialogue is really going on, because you know, you've done a lot of, you know, quite famous bloggers. And there's not that many comments posted at the end. I think it's really about one way - I mean, it's broadcasting potentially in the old sense of the word. And I don't think it's, you know, it's an active discussion going both ways.

KEEN: Absolutely. I mean, I think the biggest problem with the blogosphere is that the utopians idealize this idea of community. They say it represents this wonderful community, but it's not true. Real communities are made up of people who have different opinions. The blogosphere is essentially an echo chamber. You go there to confirm your own views.

SWEENEY: But is this not part of the age of celebrity we're in at the moment, where everyone is believed to - or told to believe that they have an opinion, which is fair enough. Everybody has an opinion, but that their opinion is valid.

KEEN: Absolutely. And that's why the Internet's so interesting. My critique is not of the Internet. It's not of technology. The Internet is a mirror. When we look at it, we're looking at ourselves.

Now some of that is great. It's vital. It's irreverent. It's full of energy. But a lot of it is what I call digital narcissism. We're staring at ourselves, but it's a mirror that we think should make us look beautiful.

And Tyler, you're the expert on design and style. I'm assuming it doesn't make people look very good often?

BRULE: No. And I think also there's a question of, you know, maybe looking beyond the walls here as well, as beautiful as they are. But at the newsroom floor, too, because I think it's - you know, whether you look at this network or the BBC or many others, where there is this constant call every 15 minutes, every 10 minutes on the hour for the viewers view on things.

And I think, actually I don't really care what people think. Actually, I want to hear it from you. I want to hear it from Mr. Ware in Baghdad.

SWEENEY: But this is obviously an elitist view, then that you could be accused of?

BRULE: And that's fine. And I don't think this problem - there's no problem with being, I think, deemed an elitist if you want it accurate and you want to make sure it's been fact checked. And you're getting it from a trusted source.


BRULE: So there's no problem with that.

KEEN: I absolutely agree. And I think the biggest problem with mainstream media is it itself is fallen under the spell of the cult of the amateur. The worst stuff on mainstream media are the reality television shows, the call in radio shows, the "American Idol" shows.

Mainstream media needs to be more arrogant. It needs to acknowledge the fact that it has expertise and authority and stress that authority. Otherwise, it loses its value.


FINIGNAN: Andrew Keen and Tyler Brule speaking there to Fionnuala Sweeney. Well, we've been reviewing some of the issues and people that are featured on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS in 2007. You can watch the show again on our website. The address

And that's all for our special program this week. Tune in again next time for another look at how the media are handling the big issues.

In London, I'm Adrian Finignan. Thanks for being with us.