News chiefs defended their coverage of events in Russia and Iran after being accused of bias in their reporting and of over-simplifying stories.
Portrayals of both countries and their leaders, Russian president Vladimir Putin and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have been over-simplified, news executives were told during two panel discussions at News Xchange in Berlin.
During the international broadcasting conference last month, David Satter, former Moscow correspondent for the FT and the Wall Street Journal, said the real problem was that ‘to capture the complicated nature of Russia takes a lot of work the Western media isn’t willing to do”.
Russia is difficult to report on because of the sometimes fictitious nature of Russian organisations, he added. ‘During Soviet times, it had fictitious newspapers and fictitious organisations. And this is preserved under a Putin-run Russia.”
CNN executive vice president Tony Maddox argued that Putin had refused every interview request since 2000, and that represented a challenge in reporting for the network.
Fran Unsworth, head of newsgathering at the BBC, said the corporation experienced ‘a certain amount of pressure’from Russian authorities when they didn’t like the BBC’s reports. This manifested itself in problems with visa applications.
‘We try quite hard at the BBC to explain complexity [when reporting from Russia]. We do try to look at health and social issues as well as political issues.”
The Russian panel focused on media treatment of Putin and his political rivals – including independent Russian politician Vladimir Ryzhkov. Putin’s opponents argued that their airtime was limited on Russian state-
controlled media. This claim was disputed by Putin biographer Alexander Rahr and Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of Russia Today, a state-controlled broadcaster.
Concerns were raised that anti-government demonstrations were not being reported in the Russian media.
Safety of journalists in Russia was also raised as a concern. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists rate the country the third most dangerous for media staff after Iraq and Algeria.
In a session entitled Iran: Here we go again? documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald argued that global media was not asking the US government for hard, substantive facts on Iran and the threat of war. He said this resulted in ‘a groundhog day’where the media were taking US and UK government reports as fact, as it had done on government claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Martha Raddatz, correspondent for ABC News, said all media needed to assess its behaviour running up to Iraq. She said the US administration was being ‘far more careful’in its information output since Iraq.
Raddatz said ABC was committed to sending reporters into Iran, but argued it was not easy to get answers. ‘What you see might not be the reality,’she said.
Freelance journalist Anita McNaught said the WMD story should provide lessons for news organisations. ‘We assumed the government was so determined that they must have known something we didn’t. We didn’t trust our judgement enough to call their bluff,’she said.
Traditional media was attacked by Iranian blogger Hoder – Hossein Derakhshan – who argued that reports were already sticking to the US administration agenda on Iran by adopting its language unquestioningly. He urged the media to look beyond military action, claiming that an economic war was already under way and needed to be better reported.
Hoder also raised concerns about how the BBC World Service, which is funded by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is viewed in Iran. ‘One of the problems is that, when funded by the Foreign Office, you are seen as too close to power. You are seen as a representative of the British government, rather than an independent observer.”
Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow urged the media to look at the wider picture when covering Iran and warned against what he called ‘an interest beyond the [US] administration in portraying Iran in an extreme way’in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. He called on broadcasters to attempt to ‘deconstruct something of the monolith of Iran”.
Snow added that media needed to look more carefully. ‘You don’t have to go to Iran to get some of this story right,’he said.
He accused the media of being ‘very unwilling’to look at the actions of Saudi Arabia in the region. ‘We’re interested in Iran,’he said, ‘because that’s what the administration is interested in.”
But journalists should not shy away from the complexity of the subject, he said. ‘It is a difficult country to cover, but covering Iran is one of our greatest obligations to humanity.”