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Coverage of the War in Iraq

Aired December 4, 2004 - 21:00:00   ET


WALTER RODGERS, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Walter Rodgers, in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
The media has long played a crucial role in the conduct of war. The line between of information and manipulation is constantly being tested. As CNN's Barbara Starr reports, one incident in Iraq recently illustrates the competing goals of the media and the military.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The troops crossed the line of departure. We had artillery fire, prep fire, going out. Aircraft had been moving through the area all day, helicopters providing transport. It's been a pretty uncomfortable time.

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Marine Corps Lieutenant Lyle Gilbert from the First Marine Expeditionary Unit outside Falluja appeared on CNN October 14 offering words that sounded like the invasion of Falluja had begun, but further reporting indicated that the long-expected large-scale ground offensive against Falluja had not started. It would be another three weeks before that would happen.

So was Lieutenant Gilbert just wrong? Or was the U.S. military using CNN to convince viewers in the battle zone that the attack was already underway?

The chief spokesman for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld insists deception of the news media is never allowed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Never, it's just not.

STARR: Jarita (ph) says he is reviewing the circumstances of the Gilbert interview.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And we're looking into specific reports where people may have gotten more creative than they should have.

STARR: A senior Pentagon official told CNN Gilbert's remarks were "technically true, but misleading," that "there was an attempt to get CNN to report something not true."

And CNN management is asking the Pentagon for an official response to this report that there was possible deliberate misinformation.

The "Los Angeles Times," which first reported this story, says it's all part of a broader effort to manipulate the media to achieve U.S. goals in Iraq.

It was an unusual interview. Gilbert, a junior public affairs officer dealing with the media appeared only because the military contacted CNN saying they had someone ready on the scene to discuss major unfolding developments that night.

A CNN spokesman said, "As the story developed we quickly made it clear to our viewers exactly what was going on in and around Falluja."

Whatever conflicting information was out there, behind the scenes at the Pentagon there is now a raging debate about the use of information as a weapon and whether a single battlefield commander should be in charge of both psychological operations and media operations at the same time.

At the core, concerns that the military is blurring clear distinctions among three goals: psychological operations against enemy forces; offering timely and accurate information to reporters; and influencing foreign audiences.

A Pentagon advisory panel warned the military must make an effort to communicate better with the Muslim world, but critics worry it is becoming a Madison Avenue type campaign, full of leaflets, broadcasts and government-sponsored influence that crosses the line.

A proposal circulated within the Pentagon calls for a new director of central information, all part of an acknowledged deeper Pentagon effort to counter ideological support to terrorism.

(on camera): All of this began months ago when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the military had to do a better job of communicating, but now the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is warning commanders not to mix up information operations with the dissemination of news to reporters, but the news media will have to be watchful as well.

Barbara Starr, CNN, the Pentagon.


RODGERS: To discuss this further, I am joined now in Washington, D.C. by Torie Clarke, former Pentagon spokeswoman.

Torie, if this story were about sex instead of Falluja and war, it would be entrapment.

VICTORIA CLARKE, FMR. PENTAGON SPOKESWOMAN: It would be. It's an important, important topic, and I'm glad people are talking about it, because as you said a little bit earlier, the news media play an incredibly important role in military combat. We count on them. We need them to tell the American people -- to tell the world -- the good, the bad and the ugly of what happens in conflict.

So lying to them is absolutely the worst thing in the world you can possibly do. It's wrong for the obvious reasons. You shouldn't lie to people. And it is wrong because you break that very important trust that we will tell the truth, that we will tell people what's going on. So it's wrong on all counts and I'm fairly confident that the people that matter, the more senior people, if you will, in the Department of Defense, agree with my opinion on this.

RODGERS: But this was a psychological operations ploy, if you will. A network was used to launch an invasion and basically I gather it was done to see how the Iraqi insurgents in Falluja would react. Is that what happened?

CLARKE: Well, that's the sense of it, but as you well know, you've covered this area for so long, there are so many different tools and tactics you can do to test the opponents, to see how they will react to things. You don't have to resort to the tool of using the news media in this manipulative fashion.

RODGERS: I know you're as plugged in as anybody in Washington. Do you think the president was upset about this?

CLARKE: Probably. Probably. Because he knows. He was a supporter of the embedding program, of putting hundreds of journalists just like you on the very frontlines of the war in Iraq when it started last year in 2003. So to the extent he's paid attention to this, I'd say probably. You just don't do it.

And we have a very, very unique relationship with the news media in this country, and it is based on trust. Sometimes it's an antagonistic relationship, no two ways about it, but it is a relationship based on trust.

RODGERS: There's another aspect of this that I haven't seen reported on, but as I studied the issue it came to me. Do you think the military misused Marine Lieutenant Lyle Gilbert in this episode?

CLARKE: I wasn't there. I don't know what instructions he was given. I don't know what guidance he sought. I do know what happened was an aberration, that it was completely out of kilter, out of sync, with the way the military has conducted itself through this conflict, Iraq, Afghanistan, all of my experience with the military. It was a real aberration.

I know the overwhelming majority of the very senior people in uniform believe that having news media there to expose both the truth, which is the phenomenal efforts of our troops under extraordinary circumstances, and the bad, what the insurgents are doing, the kinds of horrible things the insurgents are doing, is a very, very important aspect of this conflict.

And I know the overwhelming majority of them base their relationship with the news media on trust, on telling them the truth, being honest with them about what they can tell them, what they can't tell them. So I know this really was an aberration.

How it actually happened and played out, I don't know.

RODGERS: You were one of the very best spokespersons the Department of Defense ever had. Is there anything defensible about this psy-ops operation which misused the media?

CLARKE: Not this one. Not in my opinion.

RODGERS: Given the fact that the Pentagon operates the Office of Strategic Influence and uses information as a legitimate tool of deception, shouldn't the public now be wary of anything coming out of that building after this incident?

CLARKE: Well, actually, the Office of Strategic Influence was a brief-lived idea and organization that started up in the first part of 2002 and ended within a couple of months. I think it was that fast. And the reason that office ended and that role was discontinued, if you will, is because some of the concepts, some of the ideas, were similar to what happened here with the Marine, which was using the news media, deliberately feeding them misinformation or disinformation with the hopes that they would then communicate it, and because so many people, including Secretary Rumsfeld, believed that was the wrong approach and the wrong way to do things, that office was stepped down.

You know, in this era, in the 21st century in which information plays an incredibly important role in all aspects of life, but in particular in combat, I'm sure there are always going to be people looking for the best ways to use every avenue, including the news media. I take a lot of faith and a lot of confidence from the fact that the incidents we really saw, an aberration, the kinds of people and techniques considered by that Office of Strategic Influence over two years ago, aberration. The overwhelming majority of the people want to base the efforts on truth and giving people the straight information, if you will, about what's going on.

RODGERS: Torie, lovely talking to you again. Thanks so very much for shedding that light.

CLARKE: You too, sir.

RODGERS: That story we were just discussing is not the only example this week of the media being badly misled. On Friday the British Broadcasting Corporation was the victim of an elaborate hoax as it reported on the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster.

The BBC interviewed someone who claimed to be a spokesman with Dow Chemical who said the company had put together a $12 billion compensation package for the victims. But that proved to be untrue.

In a statement, the BBC said "The interview was inaccurate and part of an elaborate deception. The person interviewed did not represent the company and the BBC wants to make clear that the information he gave was entirely inaccurate."

Ian Brown is an Internet expert from the University of London.

Ian, how did the BBC get burned?

IAN BROWN, INTERNET EXPERT: Very old journalistic story, that they didn't go back to the company that they were claiming to be covering and ask for comment. That would have simply spiked the story immediately.

RODGERS: That's a real landmine for journalists, isn't it, to just read off the Internet without checking. How has that changed journalism?

BROWN: I think that it is interesting that a lot of Internet news sites, for example the Matt Drudge Report, which was criticized a lot in the 90s over the accuracy of stories and sourcing stories properly, now it comes back that the BBC, which is supposedly a world standard of impartial reporting, has proven to be just as vulnerable to this type of impersonation.

RODGERS: Yes, but when you say that, I, as someone who uses the Internet, say oh, my goodness, there but for the grace of God go I. What's the rule of thumb you must use if you use the Internet as a resource?

BROWN: Never believe what you read first time. Always look for two or three backups. Go to the individuals that are being quoted directly to try to source the material from them themselves. Just good journalistic practice.

RODGERS: This story, this false story, had a real impact, didn't it, on the financial markets?

BROWN: Absolutely. Unsurprisingly, in the pre-trading period before the Dow Jones opened, the Dow Jones share price was heavily hit, and this has happened before, where fraudsters have actually taken advantage of that. They've published false information on various companies and shorted the stocks and made quite a lot of money out of this.

RODGERS: So it goes back to that old journalism school canard, when your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.

BROWN: That's right.

RODGERS: Especially if she tells you on the Internet.

BROWN: That's right.

RODGERS: Thank you very much, Ian.

BROWN: That's OK.

RODGERS: Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, a brutal murder sends shockwaves across the Netherlands. One prominent Dutch journalist finds himself a target as well.

Stay with us.


RODGERS: Welcome back.

This is a story that is dividing one of the worlds most tolerant societies. Filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was brutally shot and stabbed in broad daylight and in full public view. The reason thought to be his controversial film depicting how Muslim women are treated. His murder allegedly committed by an Islamic radical.

Since then, more people have had similar threats, including one prominent journalist and talk show host, Fritz Barren (ph), and he joins me now from Amsterdam.

Mr. Barren (ph), thanks for joining us.

How serious is the threat to working journalists in the Netherlands who deal with Muslim and Islamic issues?

FRITZ BARREN (ph), TALK SHOW HOST: Well, the officials say we have to deal seriously with it, and we as journalists, we don't deal too seriously about it because we want to do our work. But it's quite different.

If you call the police, they don't know anything at all. They say there are threats, but we can't guarantee you anything at all. And as a journalist, you want to do your work without any restrictions. So it's quite different.

RODGERS: What's the nature of the threat you received and how did you outrage the Muslim fundamentalists?

BARREN (ph): My threatening was quite strange. There was a big Dutch newspaper (UNINTELLIGIBLE). They had a list with people who were on the lists of Muslim fundamentalists and I didn't see my name on the list, so I went to sleep on -- because I have a late-night talk show and I'm never in bed before 2:00. I wake up at 8:30, I watch the headlines and then I go to sleep again for one hour.

And I wake up one hour later and already I had 10 telephone calls on my telephone and there was already a bodyguard before my door waiting for me, because I was on the list, and I had to take care and I had to accept a bodyguard for that time.

RODGERS: Did they threaten to kill you?

BARREN (ph): It was quite strange.

RODGERS: They threatened to kill you?

BARREN (ph): Within 24 hours there was a telephone call, two newspapers, the mayor of Amsterdam, a former governor of Amsterdam and myself, we were on the list of who should be killed within 24 hours.

RODGERS: Do you see this as an attempt to gag the news media about the confrontation between Dutch society and the Islamic society there?

BARREN (ph): Well, that's all speculation. I don't know. I think there are some fundamentalists who want to do this. Yes, I think so. But we have to take care that -- not all the Muslims. There are a lot of Muslims. I have a lot of friends who are Muslim. And we have a lot of American people who deal in our society as normal Dutch people. They feel Dutch. They are Dutch. They are born in Holland. So it's quite different to say that.

But I think some fundamentalists -- and that's an international question -- they want to do this, I'm sure.

RODGERS: The murder of the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, how did that hit your society?

BARREN (ph): Well, that upset the whole society. Everybody was upset. He was not very popular in the whole society, for instance I didn't have a good relation with him, but it upset me too, because there was a religious killing. We never had it before. In the 16th century was the last religious killing. So it was so strange for Holland, a killing on the day, and a religious killing, that yes, it shocked the whole society. The whole society was shocked about it.

RODGERS: Mr. Barren (ph), thank you very much.

Coming up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, when a private life becomes a very public matter. The controversy surrounding one of Britain's top politicians when we come back.



It's a story of sex, power, politics, love and revenge. And the British media are relishing every moment of it.

British Home Secretary David Blunkett is at the heart of the intrigue after allegedly using his position to help a now-scorned ex-lover with her nanny's visa application, fast-tracking it. And while, frankly, two salacious not to cover, some questions are out there as to whether the media may be overstepping their mark.

I'm joined now by "Liberation's" London correspondent Anias Porea (ph) and Peter Hitchens, columnist for the "Mail on Sunday."

Peter, it's got everything, sex, power and we have a minister, a serving minister in Tony Blair's government having a child out of wedlock - - actually, she's married to another man, another child expected. Blunkett is trying to claim that. Only in Britain.

PETER HITCHENS, "MAIL ON SUNDAY": Well, I don't know whether it is only in Britain, because in almost all the other countries of Europe, for instance, if it happened, you wouldn't be able to find out about it because the newspapers wouldn't touch it.

RODGERS: Yes, but you like the story.

HITCHENS: Of course we do.


HITCHENS: Of course we do. Well, I like it because we these days have politicians who interfere immensely in our private lives and yet who try to hide their own, and it's particularly appropriate for Mr. Blunkett to be caught out because he's just trying to impose identity cards and all kinds of other oppressive measures on the British people on the basis that they need to be surveilled and watched and tagged and generally followed about but is himself trying to hide behind privacy.

RODGERS: Anias (ph), are the French having a good laugh about this?

ANIAS POREA (ph), "LIBERATION": Actually, they don't even know about it, you know, because sex scandals in France don't interest at all the editors, to start with. But also the readership. It doesn't interest them and it wouldn't sell anyway.

HITCHENS: How do you know it doesn't interest your readers? If you never tell them about it, they can't find out whether it's interesting or not.

POREA (ph): You've got a point, but what is interesting is that, you know, just take an ex-mistress of an ex-French president. She would call an editor of one of the daily newspapers in France and he would just laugh. He would just pass on the story because this is just gossiping. It's not news, is it.

HITCHENS: Well, I think it is news, but I seem to remember that when Francois Mitterand turned out to have two families, there was a certain amount of notice taken, even by the French press.

POREA (ph): It was pretty limited. And also, it had been going on for years and although --

HITCHENS: Well, you had all known about it. You had all known about it.


POREA (ph): All the editors knew but --

HITCHENS: So is this a healthy society (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in Paris elite, knowing all about a scandal and not telling anybody else in France. That seems to me to be very unequal.

RODGERS: Why wouldn't it sell newspapers there? Anias (ph), why wouldn't a good sex scandal like this sell newspapers in Paris? Are the French too blas‚, too mature, or don't they believe that political power is the ultimate aphrodisiac?

HITCHENS: Or do they all have two families and therefore no one cares?

POREA (ph): Well, I think -- well, actually, yes, maybe. But, no, most importantly you have to realize it's total alien conception for the French that you should mix public space and the private one.

And it is the same way the private and public lives, they are two different things.

HITCHENS: Isn't it really that, despite all your fuss about being Republican and terribly free, you're actually still an absolute monarchy and your president is a man of such enormous power and your government so authoritarian and your newspapers actually so cowardly and weak that these things just aren't discussed --


POREA (ph): That's not the same. No, you cannot get the two mixed together, because I do admire the investigative skills of the British or American press and you're right, there is some sort of incestuous relationship between the French press and the power. You are totally right about this.

But you know, the privacy of public figures is a no-go area. It's the same with God, actually. That's an interesting thing, is that sex and God you just don't discuss that in the press, because it's a private matter.

RODGERS: Peter, let me pursue this further. This is really "Bridget Jones Goes to White Hall." I mean, here you have a man who is being cuckolded by a minister of Tony Blair's government, interceding and trying to referee between the scorned ex-lover, his wife, and the minister, saying let's have a cooling off period until after the elections or after April. I mean, this is as bizarre as it gets, isn't it?

HITCHENS: I'm sure that there are more bizarre things which we have yet to learn about, and I think if you look back in the past -- well, I won't go into some of the details of the Perfumo (ph) affair. There have been more bizarre things which have happened. Judges examining the sexual organs of ministers and members of the House of Lords and things like that do happen, have happened in the past.

No. What is really important about it is that these days, the people who seek to govern us don't just look after foreign policy and maybe a little bit of law enforcement. They intervene in enormous areas of life, and so their private activities, which they claim are entirely their own, become much more important. After all, if you have certain attitudes towards marriage and sex and your government is pursuing a policy of sexual liberation, as this one is, then people might begin to suspect the two things were linked.

RODGERS: Anias Porea (ph), thank you very much. Peter Hitchens, thanks so much for joining us and for your insights.

Before we go, one other media story making headlines. One of Britain's most outspoken critics of the war has won his libel battle against Britain's "Daily Telegraph" newspaper. A judge called the charges against parliamentarian George Galloway seriously flawed. The paper claimed he was in the pay of Saddam Hussein.

That's all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Tune in again next time for another look at how the media is handling the big issues. I'm Walter Rodgers, in London, thanks for watching.



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