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David Frost on "Frost/Nixon"; Covering Obama; Jailed Journalists

Aired December 26, 2008 - 04:30:00   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, interviewing the interviewer. On the back of "Frost Nixon," we speak to the veteran broadcaster about the film and his conversations with Richard Nixon. The press can stand to a new era and inauguration of Barack Obama. What sort of honeymoon can the U.S. president-elect look forward to? And behind bars, why more online journalists are being jailed around the world.

It was a journalistic scoop like no other. In 1977, reporter David Frost secured a highly sought after interview with former U.S. President Richard Nixon. The encounter produced its fair share of shocks in the way of admissions. And now the conversations are being retold on the big screen in "Frost Nixon."

Directed by Ron Howard and written by Peter Morgan, the film captures the moment when Nixon publically answered questions about the Watergate affair and his resignation.

In a moment, we'll hear from David Frost about those historic interviews and the film. First, a look at a clip from "Frost Nixon."


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know, it's a funny thing that I've never been challenged to a duel before. I guess that's what this is.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yeah, well, not really.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Of course, it is. And I like that. No holds barred, hey? No holds barred.


SWEENEY: Atika Shubert caught up with David Frost on the set of his al Jazeera English show here in London. She began by asking whether he thought the film is a fair portrayal given its presented as a battle of wits. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID FROST, JOURNALIST/PRESENTER: You can get into a Peter Morgan said that it would be like a sort of intellectual rocky. And I suppose there was an element in that, particularly in the more adversarial part tonight, obviously, Watergate and some of the other subjects like to be abuses of power and so on in the Houston plan and things like that.

Where it was adversarial, but it was other things at different times in the interviews. And basically, basically, it captured that light. I mean, it - the - there's 10 percent of fiction in the film, which no doubt improves the film. But no, they got it absolutely right.

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I mean, seeing it as a battle of minds, did you fear losing? And what did you risk by going into this battle?

FROST: Well, of course, you're quite right, Atika, that if one had completely failed to get anything out of Nixon or any admissions out of Nixon and so on, it would have been pretty disastrous. It would have been pretty disastrous.

And as it happens over the two days of the actual interviews on Watergate, by halfway through the second day, we had got to the point that we had hoped to get to. And then it was a question of going further, trying to get more than had really expected. And particularly at the moment when he suddenly says - turns it back on me and I say why don't you go further than the stakes that - it's not enough for people to understand. I was waiting for you to (INAUDIBLE) everybody in his life again.

But I just waiting for him to answer. And instead he said, what word would you express? And that was a heart stopping memory, because I knew he was at his most vulnerable. And I had to summarize three major things that he had to say. And I had to get them across to him and end by saying that if he didn't do these things, you know, he regretted them. Rest of his life and so on.

But it was getting those three points across. But suddenly, this almost - what one felt is that almost constitutional moment where he's vulnerable. That in that situation, he threw the question back to me. And I took my clipboard, those days, the clipboard and usually anyway. And before launching into why I felt he had to say, admit, confess, you know, I threw the thing aside just to try and just underline the fact that this wasn't a prepared moment. We were both on unknown ground. And you know and this was a very genuine moment. And that led into what I had to say.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Look, when you're in office, you've got to do a lot of things sometimes that are not always in the strictest sense of the law legal, but you do them because they're in the greater interest of the nation. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wait, just so I understand correctly. Are you really saying that in certain situations, the president can decide whether it's in the best interest of the nation and then do something illegal?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm saying that when the president does it, that means it's not illegal.



SHUBERT: Have you ever done an interview like this or is this going to go down as the unique and only interview?

FROST: Well, it was pretty special because in total, it was 28 and three-quarter hours. You know, and that's where they've done a great job in distilling it in the movie. You know, but the - but so that I doubt they'll be anyone else who's quite that fascinated and do 28 and three-quarters hours worth. Maybe I'll interview you for 28 and three- quarter hours.


SHUBERT: I'd be so lucky. Well, do you think, I mean, the fact that it did last so long, and it took that long to get to that point, where he admitted his mistakes, could that happen again today? Would we ever see an interview like that on networks today?

FROST: There's no reason why not, I don't think. But I think that, you know, in terms of really someone has to be pretty fascinating, pretty enigmatic, pretty Nixonian to keep one fascinated for 28 and three-quarter hours. But the - but there may be one, there may be one. But over a short - because there are people who become infantastic over shorter periods of time. Nelson Mandela, Billy Graham, General Schwartzkopf, you know, people like that. And it's completely different ways.

So I mean, that - all - for now, it's fantastic in over 28 and three-quarter hours. It would be 28 hours more, fantastic. But at this length, it's difficult to imagine that happening again.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You've got no idea how fortunate that makes you, liking people, being liked, having that facility, that brightness, that charm. I don't have it. I never did. It kind of makes you wonder why I chose a life that hinged on being liked. I'm better suited to a life of thought, debate, intellectual discipline. Maybe we got it wrong. Maybe you should have been a politician and I, a rigorous interviewer.



SHUBERT: It was the grilling the public had wanted to see, like a court trial. Do you think people want to see that happening now with President Bush? And is that something that you would want to do?

FROST: Well, I think President Bush is one of the most fascinating people to interview in the world at the moment, along with President- elect Obama, I suppose, as well as yourself, as I said. But the - I think that they do want to see people put to the test, the public as you say. I think the difference obviously, there was such a constitutional thing with Nixon having left office and so on, that - and also, there was an air of mystery about Watergate and who did what and with which and who. You know, there was a mystery about it as well, which there isn't so much of a mystery about President George W. Bush. But there are vital issues of policy and so on to discuss and so on, but there's no great mystery. We know what he declared and what he did. You know what I mean? It's debating and weighing what he did, you know what I mean?

So - but with Nixon, you have this added element of the mystery and the five (INAUDIBLE) or the seven (INAUDIBLE) or the this and the that. You know what I mean? Which - so that added another dimension, you know, I think.

SWEENEY: David Frost, speaking to Atika Shubert.

Counting down to change, in just a few weeks, Barack Obama will move into the White House as he takes over as president of the United States. How will he fare in the eyes of the media? We'll find out.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. The election might now be a distant memory, but the hard work is just getting underway for U.S. President- elect Barack Obama. In less than a month, he'll assume the job as commander in chief. And Obama has been busy assembling his team ahead of the inauguration on January 20th.

So with just weeks to go, we want to look at what we can look forward to and the kind of stories reporters are concentrating on at the moment. And to discuss that, I'm joined from Washington by Toby Harnden, the U.S. editor with "The Daily Telegraph" of London and Jordan Lieberman, publisher of "Campaigns and Elections Politics" magazine.

Jordan Lieberman, how much of a honeymoon period has he got?

JORDAN LIEBERMAN, PUBLISHER, CAMPAGAIN & ELECTIONS POLITICS MAGAZINE: Well, he's got at least a couple months. Right now, the press is taking it pretty easy on him. But this typically ends in the spring with the legislature really starts banging away. You know, I'd say two months, you know.

SWEENEY: But there are those, Jordan Lieberman, who would argue that given the transition period he's in at the moment, and the worldwide economy and the various foreign policy issues on his plate, that there might not be a honeymoon period at all. Is it all down to the Senate and Congress?

LIEBERMAN: Yes. No, I disagree. Barack Obama walks into this office with some of the highest approval ratings and the biggest support among media that we've had in recent memory. So you know, he - we like to say that he's made of titanium and part Greek god. He has plenty of time to make some mistakes.

SWEENEY: Part Greek god. That's a new one. Toby Harnden, what is "The Telegraph's" view?

TOBY HARNDEN, U.S. EDITOR, THE DAILY TELEGRAPH: Well, I think there's a little bit of Teflon there as well. I mean, nothing is sticking to him at the moment. There's been Governor Rod Blagojevich scandal in Illinois. Obama's essentially stonewalling on that. He's playing it very cool and calm. The press is laying off a bit, although I sense some - a little bit of frustration now that this guy wants to have everything his own way, doesn't want to ask any difficult questions. And I think Jordan's right. It'll be a couple of months maybe until (INAUDIBLE) inaugurated. But I think the tide will turn. And he's, you know, he's got the toughest job in the world.

SWEENEY: And Toby Harnden, we spoke during the election campaign. And of course, the various election campaigns attitudes, both Republicans and the Democrats towards domestic press vis a vis the international press. Are you sensing any difference? Or is it just way too early to tell yet how the Obama White House is going to treat the foreign press?

HARNDEN: I think it is too early to tell to an extent, but I mean, we expect it to be similar to the campaign. I mean, a campaign in terms of the press operation was extremely well disciplined. It was actually reminiscent of the George W. Bush campaign in 2000. And there are indications that the Obama White House in terms of message discipline and in terms of lack of leaks may be similar to the Bush operation.

Now of course, there have been many more leaks in the transition than there were during the campaign. Obama himself has said he expects things to tighten up. You've got the Clinton factor in there. Hillary Clinton's people. She's going to be the Secretary of State. They're notoriously leaky. And you've also got Rahm Emanuel as the chief of staff, who's one of the most outspoken politicians in Washington, who has very close relationships with a lot of reporters. So it'd be very interesting to see how this cool, no drama Obama campaign actually turns into - what it turns into when he's in the White House.

SWEENEY: Jordan Lieberman, from what we see of the transition period and all the reporters who are up in Chicago, are we learning anything about - or getting any indication about how the Obama White House will try to communicate its message to the public, perhaps bypassing journalist Steven Slately (ph)?

LIEBERMAN: Sure thing. First of all, Barack Obama is speaking to Youtube. It's the first American president to deliver an address on Youtube. He's going straight to American voters, straight to activists. Doesn't necessarily need the press, although the press has been remarkably friendly to him.

He will use traditional means, of course. But I think he will supplant that with e-mail. I still get e-mails from his campaign manager just this morning. So you'll see a lot more savvy in terms of technology. No question.

SWEENEY: And Toby Harnden, let me ask you about from the British perspective, you know, the special relationship that is talked about often between Britain and the United States. Do you believe that A, it exists as it seems to in the minds of many people over the years following the end of the second World War? And if it does, in what form does it exist in 2009? And where will it - and how will it be treated by the Obama White House?

HARNDEN: One of the problems that the British have now that Gordon Brown will have with Barack Obama is the closeness of George W. Bush and Tony Blair. So - and I think that the Obama campaign, Obama team is very conscious of that.

So I think that Britain can no longer expect to be, you know, treated specially or even be first among equals. I think they'll have to fight for their voice at the table. And I think it was an indication in the summer when Obama chose his big foreign policy speech to be in Berlin. He then went to Paris, held a big press conference there. And Britain was like an afterthought. It was the last visit on the list.

And I know that already, there is very intense competition between Paris and London as to who get the first audience with President Barack Obama. So it remains to be seen how special the so-called special relationships will be with Obama.

SWEENEY: That's interesting about the competition between Paris and London. Jordan Lieberman, let's move away from that topic now. When we were discussing about how in terms of the American public, Barack Obama will try to bypass perhaps the media to a certain extent to get his message through. But in terms of foreign policy, if as expected, he's expected to make a big push and is being encouraged by particularly the British to make a big push on Middle East peace, surely he will need, not only the international press behind him, but presumably the domestic press as well?

LIEBERMAN: Well, domestic press is giving him really - has been giving him a free ride. And in many ways, Hillary Clinton will be leading the foreign policy team. So at this Obama administration, I think will have the press behind him and the American people behind him.

One thing of note, by the way, about the special relationship is that Barack Obama and the American people do recognize that, you know, the British have been with us in Iraq for longer than really anyone else. And I think that that really does go a long way. And I think you will see that reflected in his policies.

SWEENEY: There Toby Harnden might refuse to hear that. But a question to you. Do you believe that the U.S. and the U.K. media are in sync regarding Barack Obama? Because for a man who campaigned on change, many have commented in the media about just how conventional some of the extremely experienced people he has in his cabinet are?

HARNDEN: Yes, well, what he's saying is like le tas c'est moi. It's change is me. I'm going to have people like Hillary Clinton and people like Rahm Emmanuel, a lot of Washington insiders, Washington operatives old hands who are going to bring about the change that Barack Obama wants. And we'll see whether he can pull that off. I mean, that's somewhat of a difficult sell.

In terms of the difference between the U.S. media and the British media, that's been very interesting. I think at times, the British media have been a lot tougher because we can take a step back. We don't have the need for the very close access. So we don't need to keep them sweet the whole time.

But of course, you've also got the fact that Obama is an international phenomenon. He's loved around the world. He would have had a, you know, a mega landslide victory if Europeans could have voted in the election. So we've got our editors often in London who are very enamored of this character there. They love the biography.

So to an extent, the international media has - coverage has been very favorable as well.

SWEENEY: All right, we'll have to leave it there, but I'd like to thank you both very much indeed. Toby Harnden on "The Daily Telegraph" and Jordan Lieberman. Both of you in D.C.

The Internet and working online, it's changed the world's media landscape. But more web based reporters are being detained when compared to any other medium. Jailing journalists, when we come back.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. Now using prison to clamp down on comment. According to an annual survey by the Committee to Protect Journalists, at the start of December, 125 journalists were behind bars around the world. And it says the majority of those primarily work online such as bloggers, web based reporters, or online editors. While the overall figure is slightly down on 2007, the CPJ found 56 online journalists are in jail around the world. 53 print reporters, editors and photographers are behind bars, while television, radio journalists and documentary filmmakers make up the remainder.

Well, for more on the detention of journalists around the world, I'm joined from New York by the executive director of the CPJ, Joel Simon.

Thank you very much indeed for joining us. First question, figures are slightly down on 2007. Any indication as to why? Or is it just coincidence?

JOEL SIMON, COMMITTEE TO PROTECT JOURNALISTS: Well, it's only slightly down. I mean, it's certainly headed in the right direction. And it's been down over the last few years.

One reason is that a handful of journalists have been released from jail in Cuba. That's certainly good news. Two were released last year. And we hope to see more releases in the year ahead.

SWEENEY: What does the fact that a majority of journalists imprisoned in 2008 were online bloggers, etcetera tell you?

SIMON: Well, first of all, it tells us that the media itself is changing. More and more journalism is being done online. And that's true around the world. And we're certainly noting that.

The challenge is that repressive governments around the world are taking notice. And there are all sorts of strategies they have for controlling the print media and the broadcast media, control over advertising, repressive laws, etcetera. It's a lot more difficult to control people working online. And so, sometimes these repressive measures are employed.

The problem is that when the knock comes on the door, a blogger is often at home alone. They don't have some big media institution to stick up for them. And they're very vulnerable. And they're being jailed in record numbers.

SWEENEY: One could be forgiven for thinking, though, that it might be easier to track down a print journalist as opposed to an online journalist?

SIMON: Well, there might be true, but not necessarily in China, where there's an entire army, thousands and thousands of monitors who patrol the Internet and monitor chatrooms. And they have a pretty good sense of what's being said. And they're constantly taking measures to eliminate critical speech. And when that doesn't work, they'll go after people and put them in jail. And that's what we've seen.

SWEENEY: Are you saying the majority of online journalists who are jailed are from China?

SIMON: Not the majority, but the majority of journalists who are jailed in China are working online.


SIMON: And that's - that is a trend that's very troubling. And it's true in a number of other places as well.

SWEENEY: Such as?

SIMON: Well, first of all, the journalists who are in jail in Cuba, they're not online in the traditional sense because they don't have access to computers. But what they're doing is they were dictating over the phone lines their stories. And then they were posted to the Internet outside of Cuba.

Journalists in Burma and Vietnam, in Malaysia, these are all countries where you see a burgeoning critical media online. And you see governments taking counter measures to stifle criticism.

SWEENEY: Any way of predicting the trend for journalists imprisoned in 2009?

SIMON: Well, we're certainly going to see more journalism being done online. There's no question about that. And I think we're going to see greater vulnerability. At the same time, I'm hoping that we can start to reverse this trend. We saw a spike in journalists jailed around the world in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. The number has been well over 120 since that time. We're hoping that next year, we can start to bring it down. We're hoping that Cuba starts to release journalists. And we're hoping that the United States, which has held journalists somewhere around the world in Iraq or Afghanistan or in Guantanmo in custody every year since 2011, since 2001 - we're hoping that the United States is no longer on this list beginning next year.

SWEENEY: This presumably because of the incoming Obama administration, but a final question if I may. Any indications that the Obama administration may not only push to release journalists that are imprisoned, but also actively lobby regimes around the world?

SIMON: I think that we're seeing evidence that the administration will take a more proactive approach to this. And I think it's too early to tell, but that's certainly an argument that we're going to be making to the Obama administration.

SWEENEY: Joel Simon of the CPJ in New York, thank you very much indeed.

Before we go a reminder that we're online. Log on to to see show highlights, take part in the quick vote, and read the blog. The address again

Well, 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.