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Reporting on Robert Mugabe; France's Top News Anchor is Front Page News; Local Fixers and Reporting the News

Aired June 13, 2008 - 20:30:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, HOST: 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, what makes Robert Mugabe tick? Journalist Heidi Holland speaks to us about her face to face interview with Zimbabwe's leader. Working in a danger zone, we assess the role of so-called fixes in how can reporters tell the story. And it's front page news in France, the buzz surrounding the country's top news anchor.

We begin this week in Zimbabwe, where in a fortnight, voters will go to the polls in the country's presidential run-off. The incumbent Robert Mugabe will stand against opposition leader Morgan Changerai (ph). March 29th elections delivered a majority win to Changerai, but not enough to secure the presidency. Those news outlets, including CNN, are banned from reporting within Zimbabwe.

South African based journalist Heidi Holland is one of the few international journalists to interview Robert Mugabe. She first met with him 30 years ago, and then spoke to him at length last December. That's the basis of Heidi Holland's new book, "Dinner with Mugabe." Heidi Holland joins me now in studio.

And your interest in Mugabe, from where does it stem?

HEIDI HOLLAND, AUTHOR, "DINNER WITH MUGABE": I was a young journalist and activist in Zimbabwe when he was beginning his career as a freedom fighter. And I admired him. I admired the general nationalist cause, but he in particular. He was very smart. He was very articulate. I, for some reason, had a particular sort of interest in him all along. And then I used to cooperate with various people who were trying to help the nationalist cause in various ways.

And one night, he came to dinner at my house, not to meet me, but to meet this constitutional expert. And that's when I encountered him for the first time, not that he was talking to me, but I was cooking the dinner.

SWEENEY: And that drove, I think, very quickly to a train station. So in a way, you were a kind of facilitator. And in this book, and there have been many written about Robert Mugabe, you take a different approach by talking or at least getting the help of psychologists in trying to work out what makes this man tick.

HOLLAND: Yes. As a journalist and subsequently as - especially in the last 10 years, I felt that the story was very superficially covered. You know, he'd become this carvel petart (ph), one dimensional villain. And I knew because I met him and that he was actually once a decent guy. He certainly isn't any more, but I felt it would be interesting to find out what happened in those years.

SWEENEY: And what did you learn?

HOLLAND: Well, I think that there were certain turning points. I think he was ill equipped for politics in the first place.

SWEENEY: He didn't want to be a politician.

HOLLAND: No, he didn't.

SWEENEY: It was imposed upon him.

HOLLAND: Yes. He wanted to be a school teacher. And he would have made a very good headmaster that sullen when people criticized him and so on. You know, but instead, he was chosen probably because he was very elegantly dressed. He looked the part. He came from a violent nationalist movement. And in the process of becoming the person that this nationalist movement wanted him to be, he kind of outstripped their expectations and turned into a monster. And he is a monster.

SWEENEY: Well, you also speak about that childhood, which was - it seems to have been a pretty deprived childhood. I mean, he was educated by the Jesuits. His father left when his brothers died. And he really had to assume a leading role in the family with a mother who was very zealously religiously oriented and also suffering from depression.

HOLLAND: Yes, exactly. Couldn't have been a worst start. And he's a very shy guy. His brother, his younger brother, who I interviewed, told me his only friends were his books. And he agreed with that when I talked to him a few months ago.

He doesn't leave people mad at him. I think that's probably because he (INAUDIBLE) emotions because of that early deprived child - emotional childhood that you talked about. And he doesn't allow people to matter to him. And he's developed intellectually at the expense of his emotional development.

SWEENEY: And when you spoke to him last December, did you in any way broach any of this with him at all?

HOLLAND: Well, yes, I did. I talked about, you know, his - the fact that he didn't have friends and the fact that he's a lonely person. You know, and he told me that as a little boy, he used to talk to himself and lived in his mind. And he didn't seem to have any reason to deny all that.

SWEENEY: I mean, full of contradictions in the sense that when Margaret Thatcher resigned as prime minister and his cabinet applauded, he said why are you clapping, I'm going immediately to my room to write her a letter, a product in many ways of colonialism, a man full of a number of contradictions. Does he have any sense at all about the direction in which he's taking his country?

HOLLAND: Well, I think, I mean in the case of Thatcher, he quite admired Thatcher. He - you know, the thing about Robert Mugabe, I think one of the keys is that he's tried to be a Brit his whole life long. Don't forget this is an 84-year old man who grew up, spent the first half of his life living under British colonialism. Subsequently, and you're very violent version of post colonialism. And he's modeled himself on a British gentleman. And as you can see sometimes, when he gets on the campaign trail with his 40 African prints and his baseball cap, marveling of abuse of Britain, he seems to turn into somebody else.

But this is a man who feels hugely betrayed by Britain in the second instance. And in the first instance, by the white Rhodesians as they were when he took over, who he tried very hard to reassure. When he came to power, I think he had every intention of being an exemplary leader. And they voted racially against him.

SWEENEY: And that was not quite to sort of be able to sort of ride that one out and be generous what Rhodesians.

HOLLAND: This was a weak man in his call. He - when he's humiliated, or thwarted in any way, and especially rejected, he gets revenge. He bides his time. And that's what's happening now.

SWEENEY: In terms of the elections which you know are coming up in a fortnight, he's biding his time. He let them have the election, so to speak as much as he then tried to certainly delay the results. So what do you think is his modus operandi now?

HOLLAND: Well, he's conducting the run-off, but on his own terms. And he's organized the rural areas as if for - the guerrilla warfare that he fought.

SWEENEY: And that's where his message plays quite strongly, particularly against Britain?

HOLLAND: Yes. Well, yes. But I mean, he's only got a (INAUDIBLE) support. But you know, this is a man as you say of contradictions. On the one hand, he wants respectability, he wants to play it by the rules. On the other hand, he plays it his way. He will win at any cost, Mugabe.

SWEENEY: And what about Britain and perhaps the wider international communities role in all this? How have they handled the situation in Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe's specifically?

HOLLAND: Well, up to now, they've relied on punitive measures, not very effective ones.

SWEENEY: Which from the man you described aren't necessarily going to work?

HOLLAND: Well, you know, this is a man acutely sensitive to humiliation. And if you look at his background, he suffered a lot of humiliation, as every black person in charge of a country in Africa has. This is not the way to - I think, to treat Mugabe. He'll just get angrier and angrier. And he'll take it out on his own people. He doesn't care what he does.

SWEENEY: Given his contradictory relationship with Britain and colonialism, and you think that Britain could actually play a constructive role right at this moment now, if it were to take a different tack?

HOLLAND: It would have to be a radically different tack. They - if they decided to play Mugabe at his own game, if you like, they would rather embrace him than humiliate him. And that, I think, is more than they could tolerate.

But I think it would work, because he would like nothing better than to (INAUDIBLE).

SWEENEY: (INAUDIBLE), and then what?

HOLLAND: Well, work out a deal. Perhaps on the basis that he will recall from Lancaster (INAUDIBLE), best person government, an party conference. I don't know. Many nations I'm sure. But of course, getting hold of that hurdle of the one dimensional villain is really the biggest problem.

SWEENEY: Do you think he'd be willing to step down and a deal negotiator by Britain?

HOLLAND: He might step aside, or he might after a couple of years or something. I would suspect he at some level wants to be stopped, that he's pushing and pushing. And nobody's ever stopped him. He's been pushing for years and years and years. You know, he's outwitted everybody.

SWEENEY: Obviously, we have to see what happens in the next couple of weeks amidst the elections there. Heidi Holland, author of "Dinner with Mugabe,", thank you very much.

Now a pledge from Russia's new president, speaking of the way Russian Press Congress, Dmitry Medvedev vowed his administration will ensure media freedom.


DMITRY MEDVEDEV, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT: Today and in the future, we will remain focused on the building of a free and responsible society, the observance of human rights, the press, and freedom of speech, and certainly the supremacy of law.


SWEENEY: Dmitry Medvedev last month succeeded Vladimir Putin. During Putin's tenure, many media outlets were brought under Kremlin control. Press freedom groups argue that has restricted the media. Opinion among Russian journalists is mixed.


MARGARITA SIMONYAN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, RUSSIA TODAY: It's true that we have state run that we have oppositional channels, that we have (INAUDIBLE) source of newspapers, you name it. I (INAUDIBLE). We know political (INAUDIBLE) can get zones of what Internet is not regulated in any way. So the fact that if you want to get information about whatever, there are plenty of means to get it.

SERGEY DORENKO, JOURNALIST (through translator): Journalists can't do anything, because unfortunately, they are not supported by the public. They don't exist as a social strata with their own interests. And they are not popular with the public.

The public is interested neither in politics, nor in freedom of press.


SWEENEY: After Dmitry Medvedev's inauguration as president, Vladimir Putin was appointed Russia's prime minister.

Now they help us bring the stories to you. Their work is largely behind the scenes. Their contribution, though, is critical. In a moment, we'll explore the role of fixers in the news business.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. They're known in our trade as fixers. They're the local journalists used by correspondents when in an unfamiliar territory. Often that means danger zones.

Now the role of fixer is vast and can vary dramatically from case to case. They guide, translate, help arrange interviews and sometimes they've been known to help deal with visa problems.

Well they play a pivotal part in getting the story, their behind the scenes contribution can sometimes go unnoticed. So for a sense of what fixers do and what it's like working with them, I spoke to Phil Cox, the filmmaker, who's extensively covered the crisis in Darfur. He captured the first images of the unfolding humanitarian situation there, pictures that were beamed around the world.

I was also joined by Tina Carr, director of the Rori Peck Trust, an organization that supports and promotes the safety and welfare of freelance news gatherers. I began by asking Phil Cox whether it would be possible for him to do his job in the places he goes without fixers.


PHIL COX: No. I think that goes for any (INAUDIBLE) journalist who's a freelancer, who wants to step out of a controlled environment and find stories out in the field.

So for me personally, the fixer is the most important aspect in the job. It's not just a matter of visas or - it is about getting out into unknown areas, finding stories where maybe other media won't enter or might be too dangerous, or bringing me into knowing people that might be dangerous, or haven't been met before.

And so, it's pivotal, the role of the fixer. And it's little known and little understood often by the public how important they are.

SWEENEY: Tina Carr, a fixer is really what it says, fixing everything. In the Rory Peck Trust, do you regard fixers as important as freelance journalists? You consider them journalists?

TINA CARR: Absolutely. We make no distinction at all. And in fact, many of the journalists and camera people we help now began their lives as fixers. And many of them continue to be journalists and fixers at the same time.

SWEENEY: And Phil, can you give us an example of how maybe the situation Africa, where you might have been or Afghanistan, where a fixer was actually quite crucial?

COX: I mean, during my three, four films in Darfur, for example, and it's really fundamental that I find the right fixer to be able to travel into Darfur...

SWEENEY: How do you go about finding the right fixer?

COX: Well, a lot by word of mouth. Sometimes by gut instinct. Remember that when you work with a man like this, or a woman in the field, both of you can face life threatening situations. So you have to trust each other. And you have to trust him. You might not understand the language. You don't understand the dialect, well the customs where you are, or some of the sensitive issues.

So everything depends on this fixer and how he represents you and finding the story. So you know, I've had situations in Darfur where we've been alone in the desert, suddenly armed men appear and stop us. And we don't know what group they are. They'll start challenging my fixer, trying to attack me or beginning to take my goods or possessions. And it's a very delicate moment. And situations like that, how he responds, how I respond, how we stay together and can determine whether you live or die essentially.

And you develop a very strong bond with your fixers. You become very close to them. And I think that's important, because they're putting their lives on the line more often in cases than you are, because we leave and they stay.

SWEENEY: Well, that's (INAUDIBLE) Tina Carr that the Rory Peck Trust tries to help out with. I mean, we're not necessarily talking only about sort of health care for these people. I mean, these are really a life or death situation.

CARR: Absolutely. Life or death. And it's really interesting to hear Phil. He's a freelancer and who probably relies on fixers as much as anybody. But so do the main broadcasters in the main newspapers, all the media employers.

And we've got situations where a fixer maybe not been in such a close relationship as the one Phil describes, been used to set up perhaps one interview. And that one interview puts his life in jeopardy. And the person who's asked him or the organization which asked him leaves the country, having done the story, and the fixer is left. And suddenly, they and their family are in danger.

SWEENEY: So you're saying that the broadcast outlets, print outlets...

CARR: Yes.

SWEENEY: ...etcetera, should really take care of these fixers?

CARR: In the same way that we say they should take care of the freelancers who work for them, yes.

SWEENEY: OK. How in practice would that work?

CARR: In practice, that would work is that the duty of care doesn't just stop the moment you get on the plane and leave. A few have used somebody to do a job, make sure that you do it effectively as possible. You try and make sure that if whether you pay them as safely as possible. And if anything happens to result of the work they're done for you, you take responsibility...

SWEENEY: Even if it's one story?

CARR: ...with helping them. Even if it's one story, because maybe you couldn't have done that story without them.

COX: I mean, I've had two fixers of mine, for example, one in Darfur. He was then picked up by the Sudanese government for his work.


Some of the major stories with me. Another fixer in Iraq, for example, you know, called me up at 2:00 in the morning, he's been threatened, he's been left, and the broadcaster was not helping him. So he turns to friends.

And that sort of responsibility that employers have or how we leave our fixers, these people who really are fundamental to getting the news to the public is very precarious.

SWEENEY: How much (INAUDIBLE) are you getting from broadcast outlets, generally media outlets for what you would like to see fixers in terms of care?

CARR: It's growing. It's getting more and more. It's - I mean, I would say the major established broadcasters, they know they have a duty of responsibility. And they are beginning to do that. But that isn't a worldwide thing.

SWEENEY: Mm-hmm.

CARR: And there...


CARR: It should be standardized. It absolutely should be standardized and codes of practice and everything. And worldwide, fixers are relied on to such a huge extent, especially in Iraq, Afghanistan. And as we say, you know, they couldn't get the stories out without them.

SWEENEY: A final question to you, Phil. What happens to the fixer when he's done fixing?

COX: Well, many of these men and women, when the fixing's finished for myself, they're simply waiting for (INAUDIBLE). I mean, good fixers are well known and at all the (INAUDIBLE). So we'll be waiting for the next journalist to arrive.

SWEENEY: Phil Cox, Tina Carr, thank you both very much.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. The story is big news in France. Reports this week that top news anchor with TFR, Patrick Poivre D'Arvor, or PPDA as he's known, is to be ousted in favor of a younger woman, 41-year old Laurence Ferrari. The French press splashed the story across their front pages. Some suggested that President Nicolas Sarkozy had played a part in the decision.

Well, let's get more on this now. And for that, we turn to Alison Smale, the managing editor of "The International Herald Tribune." She joins us now from Paris.

Alison, we say this is a huge story in France, but is it more associated with Nicolas Sarkozy rather than being just a story of one top anchor being ousted in favor of a younger female version?

ALISON SMALE, MANAGING EDITOR, INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE: I think there's a mixture of both things going on here. PPDA, as he is universally known, is a very well known figure in France and barely an issue of sort of weekly magazines come up about reference to him.

Secondly, Laurence Ferrari is somebody who is also a nationally well known figure, and is thought to have been close to Nicolas Sarkozy at various points in her career. She left Teaphone (ph), the private station last year. And this would be a very quick return for her, which has got everybody brewing about whether Sarkozy had some kind of say in this decision, whether he contacted media executives at Teaphone (ph) to influence the decision.

I really have no idea whether they did or not, but I think that this reflect what in France is a pattern of a president having interfered in the media, and therefore the reporters being very sort of alert to whether this is possible interference or not.

SWEENEY: But beyond this particular story, how do you describe President Sarkozy's relationship with the media in general in France?

SMALE: Well, I think Mr. Sarkozy, obviously, he is always been criticized on the left. And well known leftist dailies like La Nation have certainly kept that up since he took office.

But he did take office almost just over a year ago, with an enormous popular sentiment for change in France. And I think he was, you know, rode that wave very well. He did some things that were sort of unusual for a French president.

Then, however, he got divorced. And he very suddenly fell in love quickly again with Carla Bruni, who is now his third wife. This was for the French perhaps a little bit too far to go with a peopleization, as they call it, of the presidency. The French presidency is an enormously powerful office. It is one that's sort unites the functions of a monarch almost with the functions of a prime minister/president of the 21st century.

And I think Sarkozy has suffered in the polls very much since then. He's come back a little bit now, but we shall see what the relationship is going forward. Carla Bruni is just about to issue another album as a singer. And she's also promised the public a book about her partnership with Sarkozy.

She did very well, for instance.

SWEENEY: If the French people are unhappy with the peopleization of President Sarkozy's relationship with Carla Bruni, then why would he take the step - would they take the step of constantly being on the front pages of magazine? I'm thinking of Paris Match, where there have been on just even very recently. And one journalist actually said to me off the record, gosh, we can't have them on again.

SMALE: Yes, well, I - you know, I think that there's very much of a debate. The - anything was happy to have good publicists for Carla Bruni and Nicolas Sarkozy when they went to England, for instance, where she's certainly been sort of wowed the British press.

And they are constantly torn between two instincts here. One is to sort of say here we are. This is how we live our lives. And it's no longer such a sort of mystery. And the other one is obviously to have popularity.

How that all ties into how much the president does or does not influence the media, I mean, he's been friends for many years with people who are powerful businessmen here. And some of those powerful businessmen have media interests. How much there's direct influence, I don't think it's really possible for outsiders to judge.

SWEENEY: I mean, it raises the specter of his neighbor, the Italian recently elected prime minister Silvio Berluscone. Is it a fair comparison?

SMALE: I don't really think so because Silvio Berluscone is a man who made his fortune out of rising basically in media. And his extraordinary position of being in charge of state controlled television and private television, one in the same time, is certainly got no parallel whatsoever in Sarkozy's life.

SWEENEY: And finally, Allison, you know, the summer of (INAUDIBLE), the south of France, was (INAUDIBLE) often talked about journalists. Can we expect to see more of the Sarkozy-Bruni relationship on the covers of magazines?

SMALE: I think it's almost inevitable.

SWEENEY: Short and sweet, Allison Smale, thank you very much indeed for joining us from Paris.

Well, don't forget we're online all the time. Log on to to see all or part of this week's show again. You can also view our archive, take part in the quick vote, and read the blog. It's all at

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.