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Zimbabwe Peace Agreement Signed; Reporting on Celebrities; Financial Crisis

Aired September 19, 2008 - 20:30:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, HOST: Hello, I'm Fionnuala Sweeney in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, your weekly look at the news and how the media covers it.
Coming up, dark days for the world's financial markets. Is this uncharted territory for the press? A signing of Zimbabwe's power sharing agreement, we explore what it means for the country's media. And from Britney to the Beckhams, the names, the stories. We'll have an insider's take on reporting on celebrities.

Like most broadcasts this past week, we start with news on the business front and the media's coverage of the turmoil that has shaken the world's financial markets. The headlines have been bold. Black Monday, Terrible Tuesday, the Wall Street crisis.

Here in Europe, we have seen on certain newspapers in "Le Figaro", for example, a reference to a financial tsunami. If we have a look at "The Guardian," "Nightmare on Wall Street."

Well, the collapse of U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers triggered a wave of uncertainty and reporters struggled to keep up with demand for wall to wall coverage. The fast moving story tested even the most seasoned financial journalists. For more on that, we turn to Katie Benner, a reporter with "Fortune" magazine. She's in New York. Also joining us, Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Review.

Well, first of all, Katie Benner, I mean, it's been a bit of a roller coaster week. Could you have predicted it a week ago?

KATIE BENNER, FORTUNE MAGAZINE: I think a week ago, that people were much more willing to predict sort of tsunami would unfold, it's really what was going on a year ago. Where was the press a year ago? Because now, I think the press has certainly caught up. And people are all over headlines, people are all over stories, looking for crisis, looking for a collapse. It's really a year ago that I think the press might have been behind the curve.

SWEENEY: And Dean, let me ask you. You've written an essay recently on this for the Columbia Journalism Review called "The Language of Calamity." Do you believe the media this time around called it right, if they didn't even last year?

DEAN STARKMAN: Oh, at this current moment, yes, of course. As I was saying to you earlier, the - trying to critique media at this point is like trying to critique the London fire department during the blitz. I mean, the entire city's on fire and institutions that all these reporters and editors grew up with are disappearing.

These are, you know, unprecedented, historic, unusual, and completely new.

SWEENEY: But if I could stop you right there, Dean, those very words that you use, unprecedented, historic, I mean, we've heard those words so many time in relations to different stories around the world. And I'm not just talking business news. Have we become anesthetized.


SWEENEY: .to the dangers around us in the financial world at the moment?

STARKMAN: Yes, that's very fair. And I probably - if you go back and look at headlines from the tech bubble crash in 2000, 2001, in the long term capital crash in 1998 and the Russian debt crisis back then, I'm sure there were - there was language that sort of echoes in the ears of some of your viewers, historic, unprecedented, etcetera.

Fair enough. But in this case, they happen to be right this time. And there's nothing else they can do. So their, you know, at this point, they are - they're sort of forced to pull out words like `momentous' and `historic.' It just - there's just no other word for it.

SWEENEY: Katie, I mean, you mentioned a tsunami a moment ago. And the cover of "Le Figaro" from earlier this week, the French newspaper. There is a reference to "un tsunami financier". Is that the best way to describe what happened to the lay person?

BENNER: Well, I think that the - I think the issue isn't whether or not this is the worst crisis that will ever hit Wall Street, or whether this is the worst crisis that will ever hit the financial system. But are we hiding behind words like `tsunami?' Is it short hand, a way for the press to move on a story, but not really translate to the person on the street why this is important.

I mean, if you asked 65 random people all across the United States what is it that Lehman Brothers even did as s company, as a firm, what those people did when they went to work every day, I doubt they could tell you. So I think it's very difficult for people to understand to match the headline with their life.

The headline might be correct. And I do think it is. I do think it is an extreme of that that's happening right now in the global economy. But it's very, very difficult I think for the media to be able to translate that everyone.

SWEENEY: But I'm wondering, Katie, is it now then the case that we don't just read specialized newspapers like "Financial Times" or magazines like "Fortune" for financial news, that this really is permeating our every day life more and more, and that it's up to general news reporters as much as financial reporters to be on top of what is happening?

BENNER: Certainly is. And I think that in some ways, I mean, working at a publication at "Fortune," it's very easy to hide behind jargon because we have such a specific audience. We know that our readers will understand already what it, you know, what a credit crunch is and why that matters, what's going on in the repo market to some degree. But this is now a general news story. And so I think that that's where that translation does - isn't happening. And it should.

SWEENEY: Dean Starkman, in your essay, you refer to how Lehman's liability has been the subject of heated debates for months, but the actual failure of Lehman Brothers was in itself a shock. Should that have been better predicted by journalists if not the guys themselves involved in Lehman Brothers directly?

STARKMAN: I suppose so. I mean, what I was referring to there was just the difference between something you know might happen, and something that actually happens. And that's sort of what I was describing. And I think that's why the language of sort of shock comes in.

I would say though on this - you know, there's - I would say it's sort of important that to define issues here. I mean, you're asking about current coverage the last week, the last few months of the last year. And I think those are, you know, one could debate. And I think Katie's right that they were - the business press was a little slow to get off the mark in the spring of 2007, for instance.

You know, but there's - to me, I guess there's a sort of a deeper, more complex, sort of structural issue that I think the financial media, once this is all over, is going to have to start to think about. And that is what is it that could have - is their approach to their jobs and particularly the coverage of Wall Street, and you know, and major lenders and the financial industry generally, etcetera, is this approach sufficiently arms length? Is it sufficiently skeptical? Is it sufficiently investigative? Does it provide enough warning ahead of time?

SWEENEY: Katie Benner, how do you feel about that being sort of a financial meteorologist?

BENNER: I think that journalists, we do talk about this because we wonder about it. There - with all publications, you want to have that investigative piece. You want to write stories that tell people something is happening, something is happening to warn them. And at the same time, another part of your job is to write profiles or to write stories about companies. And there's publications walk a fine line between deep investigative journalism and the sorts of profiles that keep their advertisers happy. That's who we're, at the end of the day, paid by.

So it is difficult. And then there is the idea of when you are sounding the warning bell, how responsible do you have to be? I mean, what if a year and a half ago, the financial media had really started to become concerned with what was happening in the real estate market and securitization market, and started writing stories that at that time would have been considered sensationalistic, that we were creating the problem. So I think that's another, too, that is always in the back of your minds when you're looking at data, when you're interviewing people, saying to yourself, well, am I too far ahead? Am I creating a problem where there is none?

SWEENEY: Well, we have to leave it there, because I can see Dean Starkman dying to break in there with a point.

STARKMAN: Yes, I'm just saying those are great points.

SWEENEY: Those are great points. Well, great a degree of unanimity. Thank you both very much indeed. Dean Starkman and Katie Benner both of New York, thanks a lot.

Now it's been described as an historic deal. The world waits to see the impact as Zimbabwe's power sharing agreement. Will it signal a turning point for the country's press? That story when we return.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. Now to Zimbabwe and a pledge from two political rivals to work together under the country's new power sharing agreement. President Robert Mugabe and new Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai signed a deal on Monday. While it aims to end Zimbabwe's political and economic crisis, the agreement also promises to ease past laws to create an open media environment.

So what are the real prospects for Zimbabwe's media and indeed foreign journalists, many of whom are banned from reporting inside the country? Well, for their thoughts, I'm joined by CNN's Nkepile Mabuse. She was reporting from Zimbabwe earlier this week. She's now in Johannesburg. And here in the studio is Lance Guma, producer and presenter with Southwest Radio Africa, a station which broadcasts from London into Zimbabwe.

And Nkepile, what was it like in Zimbabwe?

NKEPILE MABUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Fionnuala, first when we found out about this deal, that the deal would be signed, a power sharing agreement would be signed, we asked the Zimbabwean authorities, the information ministry in that country, if we could come and cover the signing event. And they said no.

CNN is straw banned in Zimbabwe despite expectations that this power sharing deal would really usher in a new era in Zimbabwe. They said CNN is biased. And we are not allowed to broadcast from Zimbabwe.

So we had to do this secretly. I mean, we were reporting from a secret location. We couldn't freely move around in case we were detected. So it is very, very frustrating, and very difficult to cover the story, but we were in then. We managed to speak to people on the ground and really find out what Zimbabweans thought about the future of their country following the signing of this agreement, Fionnuala.

SWEENEY: So Nkepile, if there was an expectation that it might be easier to move around Zimbabwe this time around, because of the incoming transitional government, this was not the case in your experience?

MABUSE: Well, for now, Fionnuala, the old guard is still in charge. We're hearing that the new government may come into effect next month only in October. So really, I think things will change very slowly. And also, according to this deal, you know, there is some - there are some clauses about the media in the deal. But it doesn't say anything about international media. It only mentions local Zimbabwean media. So we don't know really. We're just hoping that the information ministry will not be run by the same people who've been running it all along, who have banned CNN and other international news agencies that there will be room for us to actually go in there and start reporting freely.

SWEENEY: Lance Guma, you are involved with the radio station based in London that broadcasts into Zimbabwe. What are your expectations about this agreement between the government in relation to the media?

LANCE GUMA, SW RADIO AFRICA: Well, I think to be honest, everyone is playing a wait and see game. Although this agreement talks about freeing up the AOAs and inviting as many media houses as possible to come and operate in Zimbabwe, there's no real clarity of when this can be done. And the same repressive legislation, Iepa (ph) and Porsa (ph) are still in place. So the legislative environment has not really changed. Everyone is awaiting constitutional amendment number 80, which is expected to usher in those amendments.

SWEENEY: There is a line here in the agreement that says the parties hereby agree that the government shall ensure the immediate processing by the appropriate authorities of all applications for re-registration. What does that mean, presumably one had to be registered before one can apply?

GUMA: Well, that's a very ambiguous. No one knows what that really means. But in fact, the whole agreement that was signed on Monday still has to be constitutionalized. It has to be made law. Even the post that they created of prime minister, which is why I think Tsvangirai was referring to himself as a prime minister designate, it was only the - in August when parliament convinced that all these things can be made.

SWEENEY: October.

GUMA: Yes, October, that these things can be made into law. So the same applies. The state of environment has not really changed. So nobody really knows what to expect. I was talking to Will Fabanga (ph), the editor of the Zimbabwe newspaper that publishes from the United Kingdom.

SWEENEY: And he's been a guest on this program as well.

GUMA: Yes, and Will was saying it's business as usual for them, the same punitive import duties, 70 percent importing currency, which they're paying still remain. You know, and for them, he can really tell his correspondents who are working in Zimbabwe, you know, hey guys, everything is OK. You can now come out in the open. There are no guarantees coming from anyone.

And I think the biggest problem is we don't have a government in place right now that is running the country. So you don't know who to address in terms of these issues if you want answers.

SWEENEY: Nkepile, did you get any sense of optimism among the people you spoke to in Zimbabwe about the future and particularly Zimbabwean journalists still working there?

MABUSE: Well, the people of Zimbabwe have been very patient over the years. And when we spoke to them, I mean, many of them say we'll have to wait and see. I mean, these are political rivals. Just last year, Morgan Tsvangirai was brutally assaulted by police while in custody. And Robert Mugabe said well, Tsvangirai asked for it. So these are political rivals who are having - who have pledged to work together. And many Zimbabweans are saying we'll wait and see if this really does work, if these two can actually together try and lift the country out of the economic disaster that has been created over the years.

SWEENEY: I mean, Lance Guma, do you think as a Zimbabwean in exile for six years that you are free to go home now?

GUMA: Well, like I said, it's a wait and see approach. People believe a leopard does not change its spots. And still having Mugabe as president is a worry for many people, which is why this deal has really been greeted with such skepticism from almost everyone. Speak to people in the diaspora. Everyone is not happy with this deal. And I think just going through the whole agreement, it does suspiciously look like a collection of arguments for Mugabe. It talks about functions from the West. It talks about the irreversibility of the land from (INAUDIBLE). It talks about foreign funded and hosted radio stations.

All these are arguments that we've been hearing from Mugabe. So it does look like he has gone into this agreement, made the opposition signed, and say see, all these things that I've been saying all these years have been acknowledged in this agreement. And the opposition (INAUDIBLE).

So there is a worry there that they might be using this agreement as a window dressing to get the economic pressure off his presidency.

SWEENEY: Nkepile, we all know what Robert Mugabe thinks of the international media and to a large degree the domestic media. What do we know about the thoughts of Morgan Tsvangirai about the media?

MABUSE: Well, I mean, the day after the agreement was signed, Morgan Tsvangirai was doing interviews with everybody, international media and local media. So if the MDC does get the information ministry, there is hope that things will change. There is hope that you know, ourselves, CNN and other media organizations that had been banned in Zimbabwe will be allowed to go and report from inside that country, Fionnuala.

SWEENEY: We'll leave it there, Lance Guma here in London and Nkepile Mabuse in Johannesburg. Thank you very much.

Now the pictures, the scandals, the juicy gossip. The former editor of Britain's "Heat" magazine Mark Frith spills the beans on spilling the beans when we come back.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. Now most of us have been known to read them from time to time, those celebrity magazines that give us the gossip, the stories, and the pictures of the rich and famous. Well, Mark Frith is credited with making Britain's "Heat" magazine, one of the country's most popular celebrity weeklies.

Since he resigned as editor this year, he's written "The Celeb Diaries," a tell all about the world of celebrities. Well, from Victoria Beckham to Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse, let's get the inside view now. Mark Frith joins me now.

You were with "Heat" for 10 years. What drew you to the world of celebrity?

MARK FRITH, AUTHOR, "THE CELEB DIARIES": Well, I used to work at (INAUDIBLE) magazine, which is a pop music magazine for teenagers. And I despaired towards the end of my time there. There was just no pop stars. Everything was kind of rock groups or dance DJs.

And we just tried everything we could all the time to correct somehow these pop stars. With the celebrity magazine, you don't need to worry about this. There's something about the British tabloid culture that means that new celebrities are created everyday. And the famous example is Elizabeth Hurley turned the premiere forward as a funeral unknown. It was a much famous woman in the world, well in Britain anyway by the end of the week.

And I found that whole world fascinating. I was interested in how people got on with each other or didn't. The (INAUDIBLE) and graces they develop. And the teams of people around them who are trying to protect them.

It's a fascinating world. And I wanted to reflect that in a really fun lively way.

SWEENEY: So how did you set about doing that in a way that would be different from the existing magazines like "Hello," for example?

FRITH: Yes, I mean, basically, two magazines ruled the roost in the U.K. in that time. And we're talking about the early part of the decade now. "Hello" and "OK." And what they did was they ran these interviews with people either members of European royal families or big film stars or soap stars in the U.K. that go around their houses, they go to their christening, they go to their wedding.

And it was kind of quite of elitist. It was kind of look at this amazing house, dream fantasy stuff. And what we wanted to do is do something that was a bit more real to do a magazine about celebrities, how they really are, not the fake kind of persona they put on when the cameras come around.

SWEENEY: So that could be interpreted as taking the celebrity down a peg or two?

FRITH: Our aim always was, you know, we love celebrities. We just didn't want to put them on a pedestal all the time. You know, they're real people. They're ordinary people. They have their foibles. They - when they dress up, they're gracious. And when they have publicists to protect them, that's when they're really uninteresting. And when they're real is when they're interesting.

SWEENEY: I want to, in the short time that we have, talk to you about how you think the celebrity has affected society. And it has greatly. I mean, 10 years ago, it's very different to what it was then now.

FRITH: Yes, it's - seemed like a cottage industry at the turn of the decade. And Victoria Beckham and David Beckham are these huge celebrities. And there wasn't really anyone else of that magnitude.

Now everyone can be a celebrity juts by being on a, you know, reality TV show. It's huge.

SWEENEY: But also you've also contributed to that, have you not, by pushing people who have won reality TV shows and perhaps people who have lost on the cover of the magazine.

FRITH: Absolutely. And I'm proud to do that. I mean, these are real people going through real situations. I could have spent years at the magazine trying to get an interview with Nicole Kidman. And if I finally succeeded, after all the pride swallowing conversations with publicists, she'd only tell me how great it was to work with her latest director. With someone like, you know, the notorious reality TV personality Joe Goody (ph), she will tell you everything.

SWEENEY: But at the same time, by demystifying celebrity, if that's the right word.


SWEENEY: ..demystifying celebrity, you are making people into a certain degree believe that they can be celebrities, too, without realizing that perhaps some celebrities actually are - have some talent to begin with.

FRITH: Well, they can (INAUDIBLE) too. They can go into reality TV show and they can become famous within a matter of weeks. Whether they want to is a different thing. I mean, we see all these polls about how school kids only want to be celebrities. But you know, there are so many cautionary tales on every page of this book and in every page of "Heat" magazine, to actually make you think this is not much fun at times. And it doesn't last.

SWEENEY: Well, it doesn't last. And you decided not to last as editor after about 10 years. You became extremely disillusioned after reading about Amy Winehouse, that you didn't want to put on the cover.

FRITH: Made no bones about it. I wanted to do the modern equivalent to smash hits magazine. I wanted this to be fun and lively. And for people to somehow relate to it. It's very difficult for them to relate to what is going on in Amy Winehouse's head, to be frank. People just cannot - she does not live a life like them. She cannot relate to it.

SWEENEY: But during your time, did you ever feel responsible in any way for something that might have gone on the cover? I mean, I remember reading about - in your book about one particular couple - one big brother, they got together, and then you knew before the girl knew that the guy was going to break up with the girl. And this girl had a history of a lot of problems?

FRITH: Yes. That's reality TV made real. You know, you hit these people who put their lives down on TV. And they're quite happy to sell them as well. That was a kind of weird time, knowing - maybe because knowing the relationship was going to end before one of the people did. But that's just the way it was. And we went in there when people want to see everything. Reality TV is so big and magazines like "Heat" are so big, people want to see behind the camera. They want to see what's going on. It's a very kind of now kind of attitude. And we were very much a part of that.

SWEENEY: And do you.

FRITH: Do you feel proud? Yes, I know. I thought you were going to persist with this. I sleep very well, thank you.

SWEENEY: All right.

FRITH: Without the age of (INAUDIBLE) kind of herbal anything.

SWEENEY: Or anything stronger, Mark.


SWEENEY: Thank you very much indeed.

Now before we go, a reminder that we're also on the web. Log on to to see the show again, view our archive, take part in the quick vote, and read the blog. The address again

And that's 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.