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Reporting on Economic Turmoil; Iraq Reality Check; Blogging in Cuba

Aired January 27, 2008 - 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, stocks tumble, markets in a meltdown. We assess the media's reporting of the turbulent week for the world's financial markets. Our reality check on Iraq. Foreign correspondent Jonathan Steele gives us his thoughts on the war and where it's heading.

And later, blogging in Cuba. One individual pushes the boundaries of expression and self censorship.

But first from Asia to Europe and the U.S., the state of the world's financial markets is broken out of the business pages to dominate the mainstream news agenda this past week. We had headlines that cried "Crash," others that foretold a U.S. recession. And we're warned to brace ourselves for a global economic slowdown.

While stocks tumbled and rallied, news outlets followed every twist in what the media have likened to a roller coaster ride.

Well, a downturn in the financial markets can spook investors for obvious reasons. Does the media add to the panic? Well, to help answer that, we turn to John Friedman, senior columnist with Media Web section of Marketwatch, the financial news website. And he's in New York. Also with us, Philip Coggan, the capital markets editor with "The Economist" here in London.

John Friedman, is the media fueling the panic?

JOHN FRIEDMAN, SENIOR COLUMNIST, MARKETWATCH: Absolutely. The media in the U.S., especially in New York City, did a terrible job this past week covering this story, making it much more scary than it probably needed to be. That's because of the competition for scoops and because of the blogs, because of 24/7 media here in the U.S. All in all, it was a terrible job.

SWEENEY: And in Europe, Philip, do you think the media are just as responsible?

PHILIP COGGAN, CAPITAL MARKETS EDITOR, THE ECONOMIST: Yes, I think the media always will report a five percent fall in the stock market far more prominently than they will a five percent rise. Bad news just makes better headlines. And I think there's always a bit of scheudenfreude among journalists that rich people are losing money. They aren't so well off themselves. So they let - tend to rejoice when investment banks are doing badly.

SWEENEY: And what about these big headlines, Philip, like "Crash," "Turmoil," "Meltdown?" Were they warranted in your view?

COGGAN: It certainly was a bad day for stock markets, but you have to remember that some stock markets have black - some papers have Black Monday. And the actual Black Monday that we all remember in 1987, the Down fell 22 percent. Well, this day, the Dow wasn't even open when markets fell that much. And the FTSE, the next most prominent index, only fell 5 percent. So it was nothing like the scale of previous huge crashes.

So those headlines were over the top.

SWEENEY: And John Friedman, when we do hear words like "crash," "turmoil," and "meltdown," I mean, how warranted do you think they are in your point of - from your point of view in Europe there?

FRIEDMAN: I think it's sensationalist because markets always snap back. And I think it's important for the journalists to understand what's really going on here. I think part of the problem is a lack of understanding over the markets themselves. A lot of journalists don't understand the markets, don't understand what caused them to rise or fall. And so when a big number occurs even briefly, we get all excited and blame - which is unfortunate for the readers.

SWEENEY: Well, then who's responsibility is it to try and convey the right reflection of what's actually taken place on the markets, if it's not the journalists?

FRIEDMAN: Well, the key word there, responsibility. You said before to be responsible and to explain to the viewers and the readers above all, to explain why it's happening so we understand better what's going on.

I think once people understand what's going on, they feel more confident and less nervous about what's happening.

SWEENEY: Do you think that there's been a reaction particularly to the markets this past week because of the whole subprime business, which was a word not even in most people's lexicon six months ago? And how much it also has to do with other items falling off the news agenda, such as Iraq, for example?

FRIEDMAN: Well, for sure. You're right, six months ago, subprime was a non word in the United States. Now it's a buzz word for all things that are going wrong in the markets and in the economy. And also here in the United States, we're having election year, of course with the presidency at stake. So all the candidates are jumping in there, too, to blame Washington and blame one another and blame the parties, and blame the press, what's going on. So it's a whole perfect storm of problems here in the United States right now.

SWEENEY: From your perspective at "The Economist," and obviously being involved in the financial side of things, how often, Philip, has business news dominated the agenda? Because I seem to recall that there have been times where it became much more mainstream for maybe six months or a year or two, which was the new fashion. And then it sort of slipped back perhaps since the Iraq invasion, for example?

COGGAN: Yes, I mean, if you think back to the big time, which was 1999, 2000, when the media was playing the opposite role of cheerleading on the dotcom boom, and we were getting television programs which were inviting people to trade daily. And we were getting programs that promised you could become rich out of the stock market. I mean, it's a pretty golden rule that the media has lots of programs on a subject like that, as they have with property recently, that it's the sign of a top of the market.

And you do have to remember, and some bits the media do try and do this, that this is a long term business investment, and people should not get too hung up about daily moves, which are often due to quite random factors.

SWEENEY: Such as, for example?

COGGAN: Well, this week, for example, we - it's tempting to say, as most of the media did, that the stock market fell because the economy was in trouble. But it may well be that the Societe Generale Bank fraud that has just been uncovered, which required Soc Gen to sell quite a big position on Monday, was actually the main force driving the markets that day. And that might lead to the irony, fascinating enough, that the Fed then cut interest rates the day after in response not, as it turned out, to great problem with the world economy, but because one trader in one bank got things wrong.

SWEENEY: But do you think that Fed, if that was the reason they made that decision on Monday, knew about what was happening in Paris, specifically or.?

COGGAN: They might have known that one bank was getting into trouble and thought that when the news came out, the confidence would have been hit very badly. But of course, in the media again, not everybody knew that, or certainly anybody who had a hint of it couldn't publish it. So they attribute other factors. That's the problem. There always has to be a reason for a stock market fall. And we pluck it out of the air and say it's the economy or company profits. And it often isn't that factor.

SWEENEY: OK, John Friedman, but what kind of impact do these headlines, and this - and Phil is correct about saying there's so many factors involved here. What impact does this have on investors, these headlines written by journalists who were sort of implying, may not have a full picture?

FRIEDMAN: Oh, sure, makes me nervous. And I think, again, it's our fault to a large degree that people feel this kind of panic, if you will. And it's not necessary because, as Philip pointed out, the markets do come back. And we don't always understand ourselves why things are happening. Yet, we think it's our job to try to blow things up and to try to say things are the best, worst, biggest, most. And this is really irresponsible of the media in general, especially here in the United States, because there's so much competition for scoops and headlines.

SWEENEY: But here's the thing. I mean, there are some very excellent financial journalists out there. Obviously, both of you are included in that, but I mean, you go to your editor and you say can't have a headline like this. I mean, who's responsible for the big, stark headlines that people remember?

FRIEDMAN: Not me, I hope. No, but seriously, the problem really is people battling to be quoted and be mentioned in general. This paper, or that TV show said this, or radio show said this. So people will remember it. And it's like tabloid journalism involving the markets instead of involving celebrities. It kind of spans down to the markets coverage, where it had been the coverage of say Heath Ledger or something like that, it's an international story.

SWEENEY: Now the final word to you, Phil Coggan, do you think that the media will be in general doing any soul searching as a result of how they've handled what's been taking place on the markets over the last few - I mean, clearly, there is a problem. President Bush doesn't put out a stimulus package for the economy if there isn't an issue.

COGGAN: No, I mean, there is a real economic problem in the States and elsewhere. And the media is right to focus on that. But unfortunately, it tends to take a big stock market event to divert everybody's attention to that.

But I'm afraid if the stock market falls five or six percent next week, we'll get just the same sort of headlines as we have last week. I don't think we're going to change any time soon.

SWEENEY: Well, we'll have to leave it there. Phil Coggan here in London, thanks very much indeed. John Friedman in New York, thank you to you, too.

And that brings us to our quick vote this week. We're asking whether you think the media fueled panic in the global markets. You can take part on our website. The address

You can also read our blog, find out more about the show and watch the gang online. It's all at

Still to come on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, a reporter's account of the situation in Iraq. We meet award winning correspondent Jonathan Steele for his take on the war almost five years after it began. That's next.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. He's reported for "The Guardian" newspaper since 1965, has won numerous awards, including the London Press Club's scoop of the year title and has twice been named international reporter of the year at the British Press Awards. In his current role, Jonathan Steele travels frequently to the Middle East as in house columnist on international affairs for "The Guardian."

Writing extensively on the war in Iraq, Jonathan Steele is expected to raise some eyebrows both in Washington and Downing Street with his new book, "Defeat: Why They Lost Iraq." Well, Jonathan Steel joins me now in studio. The title itself, "Defeat: Why They Lost Iraq," implies that it is lost.

JONATHAN STEELE, AUTHOR, "DEFEAT: WHY THEY LOST IRAQ: Well, politically, it's defeat. I'm not trying to claim that the Americans have been militarily defeated. It's not some kind of Waterloo. But politically, they've been defeated. The Bush idea was to have a liberal secular pro-Western stable Iraq. And what has he got? He's got deep instability. He's got a Shi'ia militia government running the country, which is very closely allied to Iran. So the whole neocon project has not worked out at all.

SWEENEY: And when you say at all, do you mean it is all lost because it would seem in recent months that some strides have been made?

STEELE: The so-called surge, you mean?


STEELE: Certainly the casualties have gone down. And that's to be welcomed, civilian casualties have gone down. But it's not just because there are more American troops. I think the Sunnis have got very upset by al Qaeda. They don't like the way al Qaeda operates. There's a battle going on between the nationalist resistance the Americans and the al Qaeda people. I think Muqtada al Sadr people, having ceasefire in the Shi'ia areas. And in a way, the killing had to go down because people have now been so ethnically cleansed, the mixed neighborhoods of Baghdad and other places are now gone. Everything is either almost 90 percent, 100 percent Sunni or 100 percent Shi'ia. And so, there's not much scope for ethnic or sectarian killing.

SWEENEY: As a British journalist and of course Britain was a part of the invasion, how did you find covering Iraq, researching your book, and generally doing stories for a British newspaper?

STEELE: Well, of course, Britain has a long history of occupation earlier in Iraq. Britain invaded during the first World War and pushed the Ottomans out, and then set up a Sunni monarchy to run the country. So Britain's not very popular among a lot of the political people who've got memories.

I find, though, however, you know, as a journalist, there was no problem being British. And people used to talk to me more in sorrows than in anger. They somehow expected more from the British, if you like, than from the Americans. They'd say why did your prime minister go along with Bush? You know, there was a sort of assumption that you could expect anything from the American president, particularly this one. But Britain somehow should have had better understanding, better historical awareness and would have not gone along with it.

SWEENEY: And let me ask you about a quote from your book, when you speak about essentially humiliation, what you saw as an assault on the dignity of the Iraqi people. And in your mind, it seems to be that's where things began to go very wrong in terms of winning hearts and minds. And you refer to, at one point, a businessman Sadr al Madawi (ph), who had been arrested under Saddam, but found his experiences much worse under the coalition forces because - namely, because he was arrested in front of his wife and children.

STEELE: Exactly. I mean, he said to me he'd been arrested. He was an Islamist. He was a member of the Iraqi Hispanic party, which was banned under Saddam. And he was arrested a couple of times. And he was tortured, he told me. But each time it happened, he was basically summoned down to the headquarters of the security people and all the (INAUDIBLE) things happened there.

With the Americans, they came into his house and arrested him in front of his family. He was in his night clothes, you know, forced to kneel and so on. But he produced this amazing phrase. We've lost the right to go to bed undressed.

SWEENEY: Do you think that that was a genuine mistake on their part of the Iraq military, who were, let's face it, operating under, to put it mildly, stressful circumstances in a war that was increasingly going against them? Or do you think that on some levels, they're well aware of the cultural considerations, I mean, knocking the door down on anybody's house in any country is going to raise some hackles?

STEELE: Yes, I think - I mean, I think of it - unfortunately, it's part of counter insurgency manuals of Western armies. The same thing happened with the British army in Northern Ireland. They used to kick doors down and go into people's houses, often at night.

SWEENEY: But I suppose the point I'm asking is do you think there were sensitivities that were either ignored? Or do you genuinely believe that the British and the American troops were not aware of these sensitivities?

STEELE: I don't think they were aware of all of them. I mean, dogs, for example, you know, dogs in Arab culture are considered unclean. But the whole use of dogs in Abu Ghraib was at the later stage used deliberately to humiliate. In the beginning, I think it was against standard practice to use dogs and you're not realizing exactly what the effect would be, the reception would be.

So I think it's a combination of cultural ignorance. And then at a later stage, it became a deliberate use of cultural humiliation to intimidate people and hopefully, I suppose, to get information out of them, or either to frighten them off from being part of the resistance or something.

SWEENEY: You know, there are those who would obviously say that given the book title alone, why they lose Iraq, that you went into this. And certainly from the first chapter when you speak to people, Iraqis themselves, who explain that they were concerned about the invasion, but more about the consequences. So there were those that are saying, who would have you down as an anti invasion person, and you're against the Bush - what he was trying to do in Iraq, whether or not he went about it in the correct way.

How do you reply to that? I mean, did you go into writing this book with a preconceived notion? Did you think it was doomed from the beginning?

STEELE: I do, actually. I mean, before the war, I thought he was doomed. But I felt - in a way, I was so provoked to write this book in a grand sense of alarm. Not so much by the alarm about what was happening in Iraq, or that was about enough. It was more about the way the thing's being perceived in Britain and in United States. The idea that the problem was there was no plan. You know, it sort of encapsulated in the phrase "no plan, no peace" or some books being written saying winning the war, but losing the peace.

And if you think about it for a minute, that implies there was a way in which a Western army could successfully occupy one of the major Arab countries.

SWEENEY: You think Iran?

STEELE: Peacefully. And I don't think there was. No, but I'm saying this - the theory that of no plan, no peace, or that, you know, why didn't Bush plan for the occupation, do it more efficiently and so on?


STEELE: That implied that there wasn't official. And my feeling is that it's impossible, you know. You cannot - the Israelis have been trying to occupy the West Bank for 40 years. So look the trouble they're having.

So for another Western army to come in, and to try and occupy a huge country like Iraq, and think that they were going to be welcomed, if they stayed too long. I mean, I'm not denying that the majority of Iraqis I spoke to welcomed the toppling of Saddam. They were glad Saddam had gone. No doubt about that. Only a tiny minority wanted to have Saddam back.

SWEENEY: And had you.

STEELE: But then they said but wait a minute, why are the Americans and the British still here? You know, they toppled Saddam. There are no weapons of mass destruction. So what's the agenda? Why are they still here?

SWEENEY: And let me turn to another quote in your book here. And you say that in June 2004, there was a Baghdad briefing held by the most senior British officer in the occupation. British journalists were startled by what they heard. A Powerpoint presentation referred to problem people as AIF. And when you were - when they were queried about this, it turns out that stood for anti Iraqi forces.

Now this is extremely shocking to British journalists. Why?

STEELE: Well, we thought it was amazing. I mean, here, we said why are you calling it AIF? I mean, they're Iraqi. How can Iraqis.

SWEENEY: These are people apart from al Qaeda and.

STEELE: These are from al Qaeda. This was, you know, very early on, before al Qaeda really got going. And you know, they were talking about problem people, meaning sort of insurgents and people who were putting IEDs and so on, anti-Iraqi forces. We said well, surely these people are Iraqi. I mean, why not call them anti-coalition forces, anti-government forces.

But to imply that they were sort of not Iraqis showed that they just - they wanted to convince themselves that anybody resisting the Americans and the British had to be foreign. Not that they could be Iraqi national feelings. They don't want attacks on our streets. We don't want troops on our street. It was not happening.

SWEENEY: And this turned out to be a U.S. phrase that has been adopted by the British?

STEELE: Yes, the senior British general, who was actually number two in the multinational forces said, as if to sort of defend the young officers in the briefing. Oh, well, this is standard coalition terminology. Well, we actually thought that made it worse. It means throughout the coalition, they were in a state of denial that there could be any resistance coming from people who were actually Iraqis.

SWEENEY: I mean, what is the main conclusion that you draw from your experiences in Iraq? And do you believe that the country will be able to unite under one leader, bringing Shi'ia, Sunni, and Christian.

STEELE: That's really hard. I mean, this is meant to be a book about what's gone on up `til now. It's not trying to stick my head out, because I don't think anybody can safely, you know. The country is so traumatized and wounded, that even if sort of peace broke out tomorrow, to reconstruct and rebuild on so many people's lives been shattered, so many people been displaced, they've lost their homes, you know, it'll be a massive recuperation, even if there was peace tomorrow. And I don't think there will be, unfortunately.

So my conclusion really is that it reinforces the view that the occupation should never have happened. It was one thing to topple Saddam, but then I think everybody should have left. And I handed it over to the Iraqis directly or got genuine U.N .peacekeeping force that wasn't just the same old invasion force operating under a different mandate.

SWEENEY: Jonathan Steele, author of "Defeat: Why They Lost Iraq." It's out in Europe and is about to published in the States in March. Thank you very much indeed.

Now still to come on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, there's a fine line between government censorship and (INAUDIBLE) post censorship, as a blogger in Cuba is finding out. And independent voice grows louder. That's next.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. The freedom to write, the freedom to blog. It's something that still eludes most people living in Cuba, where Internet access if limited and the media is subject to its own limits through strict government control.

Some individuals, they are testing the boundaries when it comes to expression and self censorship. Here's our bureau chief Morgan Neal.


MORGAN NEAL, CNN BUREAU CHIEF (voice-over): Yoani Sanchez says she knows there are limits to expression in Cuba. She doesn't know exactly where they are, but she wants to find out.

YOANI SANCHEZ, BLOGGER (through translator): In Cuba, everybody knows about the levels of censorship. But I think Cubans have also imposed a level of self censorship that often exceeds real censorship. I'm testing to see where the limits are. I want to know with my own experience where the cut-off point is.

NEAL: Yoani runs a blog, one of very few based in Cuba. It deals with subjects generally taboo here. The country's flourishing black market, state controlled media, and the high number of Cubans who leave the island in search of opportunity.

In one post called "An Empty Chair," Yoani writes about missing a friend who was jailed in 2003 during the crackdown on dissidents, who the government described as mercenaries in the pay of the United States.

The post said often avalanche of comments, some sympathetic, others openly hostile and suspicious.

SANCHEZ: The suspicions are a result of years and years of living in paranoia and mistrust, thinking your friend is the security agent or your neighbors infiltrated by the CIA.

NEAL: Yoani says she doesn't receive or need backing from anyone to run the blog.

(on camera): What she does need, however, is patience and persistence. Cuba has the lowest per capita access to the Internet of any country in that hemisphere. Almost no one is allowed Internet access in their homes.

(voice-over): So Yoani likes any Cuban that wants to use the Internet has few options.

First, she writes her entries at home and saves them on a flash drive. Then she either heads to a cyber caf‚, where per hour charges can equal half a month's salary, or she tries to slip into the business center of one of Havana's tourist hotels.

She says the government hasn't put any pressure on her. And nobody's told her to stop. And she doesn't plan to.

SANCHEZ: I've had a lot of friends with talent and opinions and ideas, who do a lot of good for the country if they could say what they think. But they just say it's not possible.

NEAL: That's not something you'll hear from Yoani.

Morgan Neal, CNN, Havana.


SWEENEY: She was described as a trailblazer who battles for women's equal rights in journalism. This week, we pay tribute to one of our own Francis Lewin, who covered the White House or the Associated Press during the administrations of six presidents and then went on to spend nearly three decades as a CNN assignment editor and field producer.

Early in her career, Fran battled to win equal access for female journalists, fighting to open the National Press Club and the exclusive grid iron club to women. Francis Lewin died January 19th with an apparent stroke. She was 86.

And that is all for this edition of the program. 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.