STEWART PURVIS PRESENTS KEYNOTE ADDRESS AT NEWS WORLD 2003
Posted on: 2003-10-21
Next year sees the 10th News World conference and rather like the newspaper or magazine that gets in first with an anniversary feature months before the actual date, I'm grabbing the chance to be the first to look back, compare and contrast. News World One was very cold, well it was Berlin coming up to Christmas. A local dignitary welcomed everybody with a very long speech in German. Mervyn Hall then with ITN so on my payroll was beginning years of detailed research into the restaurants and night-clubs of Berlin, which he eventually got Reuters to publish as a brochure for News World delegates. You didn't need to go out for a drink, instead visit what was called the hotel's 'library' and you found WTN was giving away free booze. So much drinking was done in those days that somebody joked there should have been a detox clinic in the departure lounge of the airport. Ah how things have changed.
Berlin was a clever choice because Berlin in the early and mid-nineties meant something very special. It symbolised the biggest change in the world order that most people at News World One had witnessed in their lifetime. And, hey, hadn't the broadcast media a right to say we'd made change happen. Hadn't TV and radio transmissions, initially just from West Germany but then spilling across into Eastern Europe from CNN and all sorts of other sources, hadn't they created a domino effect of change as one totalitarian regime after another fell and free media were established instead. The Cold War was over, there was to be a peace dividend. The world would be a safer place and we the broadcast media would be free to travel and free to report, to make a kind of global lap of honour after our success in Eastern Europe. There were problems in the Balkans but nobody knew how long they would last.
And the mood today, approaching a decade later? Well in the run-up to this News World I've talked with broadcast news executives from different continents. I've tried to combine my experience from 10 years running a UK based news organisation with my five years as President of EuroNews, a channel based in France but with shareholders from 20 different countries, including Russia. At some conferences my lapel badge would say 'Stewart Purvis. U.K' and at others it would say 'Stewart Purvis. France'. It meant that at times I would be approached by French citizens delighted to see a fellow countryman at an event dominated by English-speakers. The disappointment when I opened my mouth had to be seen to be believed.
But all this has hopefully helped give me a broader perspective on global broadcast media issues. 2003 was always going to be the year of War on Iraq. We all knew that so long ago that we had the graphics made months before the fighting ever started. Gulf War One at least had some sort of cliff-hanger scene played out at the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva with James Baker and Tariq Aziz. This time, for all the investigations of Inspector Blix, we knew there was going to be a war. We knew because George Bush told us there was going to be a war. So there was plenty of time for the American, British and Australian armies to negotiate with their national media about which news teams could accompany troops where during the war.
Now let's not get too carried away by the novelty of the phrase 'em-bedded'. The idea of correspondents being allowed to travel with armies in return for not giving away information that might endanger those armies goes back a long way. Check out the News World Hall of Fame for William Russell's work during the Crimean War a century and a half ago.
So if the idea wasn't new, well in truth the technology we used wasn't strictly new either because all the major pieces of kit had been tried and tested in Afghanistan after September 11th. What was different was scale, massive scale. The scale of the 'embeds'- estimated at about 600 with the Americans, British and Australians and the scale of the technology deployed. From these giant media deployments came excitement, live combat, ratings, exclusives, and awards that will surely follow. But also there were cock-ups, conspiracies, a fake, journalists lying dead in the sand of Iraq and for them only posthumous awards.
Broadcasters are rightly proud of their people; men and women, journalists and technicians, alive and dead. They're proud of the coverage and they stand behind it, but some are also uneasy, concerned and angry about the issues this war created. Inevitably those feelings vary from country to country, and broadcaster to broadcaster. Broadly I identify three blocks of opinion.
Firstly a block I will call 'most of the world' because most of the world wasn't in the so-called 'coalition'. Amongst this diverse group I find one common view that this was a war where, if troops from your country weren't fighting on the American side or your government wasn't helping in some other way, well you weren't welcome. A German reporter quotes a British army officer as telling his team; "the Germans and the French want to get their shitty stories out of my camp, but they ain't gonna get them. You guys are going to have as much access as you have troops on the ground."
The 'New World's' revenge on the so-called 'Old World' and especially its leaders, France and Germany, appears to have been ruthlessly efficient. It restricted access to Iraq from American and British held territory, though obviously it couldn't stop people getting to Baghdad from Iraqi held territory.
Now it would be naïve to think that armies who want people back home to see them on the screen will do anything other than give priority to those that can help them achieve that. But actively denying access because your government chooses not to join in the war, that's new to me.
Of course it couldn't be complete exclusion but one of the main German networks ARD, says that after weeks of negotiation with The Pentagon it was allocated precisely two places on aircraft carriers cruising somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean. Hardly surprisingly, they say, the results were pretty meager. Of course being denied official access to a battlefield is less of a problem when there is unofficial access. In Gulf War One the excellent coverage by the so-called 'unofficials' or 'freelancers' had embarrassed the military. The 'official' teams couldn't get move freely enough to get their pictures back quickly enough to compete with their 'unofficial' colleagues. This time the military had the answer to that: One: allow the 'official media' to bring with them their new technology that will get the pictures back immediately. Two: try to minimize the impact of the Arab channels with their special access to the scenes of civilian dead and dying. Three: try harder to keep the 'unofficials' completely out.
Then came an incident which for the military turned out to be a bit of luck, but for us at ITN after 48 years of news-gathering in conflict areas our luck had run out. Just three days into the land fighting an ITN 'unofficial' team led by experienced war correspondent Terry Lloyd was hit by both American and Iraqi fire outside Basra. Terry was killed, two of his team has never been found, only his cameraman survives. And whoever was shooting at whom and why, inevitably news organisations drew a conclusion; 'un-officials' were in particular danger, and they were not welcome.
One moment sticks in my mind. One of the missing ITN men is French cameraman/editor Fred Nerac. His wife Fabienne has led the campaign to find him, you may remember her questioning Colin Powell at a press conference in Brussels. After that the British Ministry of Defence rather reluctantly invited Fabienne to meet some of their middle-ranking officials. Before the meeting I tried to prepare Fabienne for the kind of people she would be dealing with. I knew them well from previous encounters. Though it would never be expressly put (that's not the British way) the implication would probably be "your husband was an 'unofficial', tough luck."
When she came back from the meeting she told me; "Stewart, it was even worse than you said." I admit I was ashamed to be British at that moment. But I have always been proud of everything which Fabienne Nerac has tried to achieve. If hers are 'Old World' values, the New World has a lot to learn. And the British Royal Military Police investigators in Basra, partly inspired I think by Fabienne, have done a determined job to try to find Fred and his translator Hussein Osman.
And what else of Britain only one country but with enough issues arising from the war to count as one of my 3 geographic blocks of media opinion. What are we to make, in particular, of Dr. Kelly's death and most immediately, the Hutton Report due out at the end of the year. Firstly my best legal adviser reminds me that Lord Hutton spent a lot of his career in the criminal courts as a barrister and judge. He's used to spotting liars. Secondly, my legal friend found it odd that -compared to a more normal legal process the cross-examinations were so short, certain key documents didn't appear to get much scrutiny in the hearings, and that Tony Blair wasn't called back for a second round of questioning like the other major players. Only Lord Hutton knows if these are factors of his timetable or a symptom of something else. From what Hutton has said himself he clearly doesn't buy the line that some BBC transmissions are more important than others. To a lawyer a transmission is a transmission. So for Andrew Gilligan's lawyer to say; "radio reports are not subject to close textual analysis by listeners. They are heard by people as they go about their daily routine, in the car, over the breakfast table, on the bedside radio," well frankly that kind of stuff gets right up a judge's nose.
Would the BBC have been better to have owned up more quickly to those annoying but not critical mistakes in Gilligan's first report? With hindsight, yes but then this was never a simple issue of fact. When the row between Alastair Campbell and the BBC was at its height, my caution to our editors at ITN was that this was a row that seemed to suit both sides. It helped Campbell distract from other post-war issues. And it helped the BBC, led by two prominent former donors to the governing party, reassure licence-payers about its independence from Labour. Only those who were at the BBC's internal meetings know whether this sentiment had undue influence in the handling of Campbell's complaints.
As to the longer-term implications for the BBC and for public broadcasting elsewhere, my experience is that British governments of the day always both love and hate the BBC, but in the end love wins out over hate. But it may be a closer run thing this time. So the Britain media waits to see the Hutton verdict and its long-term effects. The media in many other countries reflect on other issues that linger from the war.
What of the country that led the war? Today I observe the greatest gulf which I have witnessed in recent times between the American commercial TV networks and the rest of the world's news broadcasters. And I do it in sorrow, not anger. You may ask; did we ever have much in common? Well we did, especially those of us who were from big Western European news organisations. We forgave the networks their endless commercial breaks because we respected their integrity, their energy, their ideas. But to all this current post-war self-examination, the American network response appears to be simple; "what's all the fuss about?"
Tony Burman is in charge of news at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which is obviously not an American network but he sees a lot of their output and has talked to them about this. Tony summed it up thus; "the U.S networks' self-analysis of their coverage was that they were magnificent." Tony says he raised issues with them but-he says "they looked at me as if I came from the planet Pluto." But I would ask, for example: - don't we all feel a tiny bit uncomfortable about how-at the time-we bought the Pentagon line on the rescue of Private Jessica. -surely the first occasion that a security man employed by any broadcaster opens fire on somebody raises an issue or two. -maybe the widespread use of armed guards with crews might trouble us slightly?
What has caused these contrasts in perspective between the two sides of the Atlantic? Firstly 'the Fox News effect'. Fox News's success in identifying an audience of American opinion that feels badly-served by the other networks has shaken the nerve of those networks. A Gallup poll last month found that nearly half of Americans still feel that overall the American media is too liberal, but only 14 per cent say its too conservative. So Fox would appear to have more room for growth yet at the expense of its rivals. Unless, of course, the other networks move towards Fox's territory and that seemed to be happening during the war. The second cause for the widening trans-Atlantic gulf is, I believe, the 'corporate effect'. You no longer have to be a conspiracy theorist to see a connection between the ownership of networks by giant corporations and the output of their news programmes. The head of Disney said openly at the time of the merger with ABC that he would prefer if there was no coverage at all of Disney's activities on ABC News. That of course is a form of censorship in itself. No wonder British news executives worry when a would-be bidder for the ITV Network attacks British broadcasters as anti-Israeli and claims Sky News is pro-Hamas.
So who are we in Europe to talk down to America about freedom and broadcast news? What would we say to a nation wanting to join the European Union which mentioned on the application form that their Prime Minister effectively controlled the news operations of both the public broadcaster's three channels and owned most of the private channels as well. You'd probably tell them to come back when they've sorted it out.
But because Italy is already a major member of the club, and therefore its Prime Minister has his turn at hosting big events, and because he was democratically elected, confronting Mr. Berlusconi is, well , not very 'communitare' is it. And let's not forget the country that ruled half of Europe until Berlin.
Vladimir Putin has effectively re-gained control of most of the Russian broadcast media. Now the official TV channels have decided that the election debates on television should be pre-recorded. The parties want them to be live. The channels have now said that if the parties insist on that, then politicians will have to turn up in the TV studios as early as five o'clock in the morning. Progress of a kind I suppose compared to countries like Britain that don't have party-leader debates on television at all.
In summary, looking back across the world of broadcast media, nearly a decade on from Berlin we have lost colleagues, more than we ever expected, in the Balkans, in Chechnya, and now in Iraq. Some peace dividend. And now, most recently, we have had a victim of the psychological pressure that news teams are under and put themselves under.
We have lost any naivety we ever had. There are no more news virgins. 2003 is the year we understood ourselves and our roles better, a lot better. Older, wiser, sadder .Yes, for once, all three are true. The Hutton report will provide one full stop to this year. We the media will take our share but not I believe the main share of the blame for one man's death. But we won't give up our concern and anger at other deaths, and that will drive us on. We won't accept the Pentagon view that in the attack on the media at the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, an American tank crew "properly fired upon a suspected enemy hunter/killer team in a proportionate and justifiably measured response." We won't accept the Israeli army view that British cameraman James Miller was killed in Gaza because of 'cross-fire'. And we can be a pretty awkward bunch. We won't yet close the file on Fred Nerac and Hussein Osman. We will care more about safety, we will build on what we've achieved in recent years .We know that its still not enough but we're working together better than ever. We will fight for media freedoms whether it be in Russia, Italy or Britain.
And by the time News World Ten comes round, we'll recognize that the legacy of Berlin was not opportunities lost, but real freedoms gained, albeit at a heavy human price.
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