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What it's like to be an official spokesperson (from ABC)

The Media Report: 21 August 2003 - The Official Story

[This is the print version of story]

Being a spokesperson for the US State Department means dealing with the media around the clock, and it's not always a friendly interaction. Media outlets demand a constant stream of information, yet the person at the podium is weighing up what can be said, to whom and when.

Tha's the job Phillip Reeker has, as the Deputy Spokesperson for US Secretaty of State Colin Powell. This week on the 'Media Report' Phillip Reeker explains what it's like to be the man with the official story.

Mick O'Regan: Hello, and welcome to the program.


Mick O'Regan: The problem with living in the information age is that sinking feeling that you can't believe anything. So this week on the program we're going to focus on the people charged with providing the public with official information.

To begin with, we'll hear from someone who is unequivocally an official source; and in the second part we'll catch up with developments in the Hutton inquiry in Britain, where the independent judicial investigation into the events which led to the death of scientist David Kelly, has now heard from one of the key government witnesses, the Director of Communications for 10 Downing Street, Alistair Campbell.

To begin with though, let's consider how information is officially handled in the United States.

Phillip Reeker is the Deputy Spokesman for the U.S. State Department. He's often the person at the podium, explaining the ideas and actions of the Bush Administration on matters of foreign policy.

When we spoke, I asked him for his response to the widespread criticism that information justifying the war in Iraq had been politically embellished to encourage people to support the government's official line.

Phillip Reeker: I don't think 'embellished' is the right word. I think some people, particularly looking in hindsight, try to see how did we take information and try to put it in plain English, if you will, for people to understand it, and that's something that media, that reporters and journalists, have to do every day. We went to great lengths to get significant information declassified and obviously intelligence information is classified by its very nature, because you want to protect your sources and methods for this tremendous stream, or streams, of information that are coming from all kinds of sources and you want to be able to continue getting that information.

But sorting through it, and determining what is crucial, is the job of the analyst in the intelligence community, and they made various analyses, they had a national intelligence estimate on Iraq for instance, on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and within that intelligence community there was disagreement. Many people may have noted that the State Department's intelligence unit, one of the numerous bureaux or agencies within the broader intelligence community, disagreed for instance, about the possibility of Iraq trying to get uranium from Africa, or about the role of aluminium tubes that were being purchased by Iraq in contravention of U.N. Security Council sanctions, and those resolutions.

But again analysis is simply the product of lots of information coming in together and making determinations, and I think the intelligence community as a whole documented their determinations and even noted where there was dissention or where there were other views, but as a whole we must take this position, and we got a lot of that material declassified.

Secretary Powell personally went to the CIA and went through a lot of this, to make a case that he felt needed to be presented to the United Nations, and there was no compulsion to do that, but I think he made that clear in some instances later like the issue of uranium or yellowcake, from Africa, we determined that there was less and less of a case for that specific piece of intelligence, that there was documentation which was not the exclusive source of that information, but some of the documentation turned out to be fraudulent, and there was more disagreement. In fact it was a tiny piece of all of this.

Mick O'Regan: Sure, but just on that piece of fraudulent information, if it's the same one that I'm now thinking of, in that it came to light in some of the investigations that the Iraqi National Congress, which was a group that was set up with, from my understanding, a lot of input from marketing and public relations firms like the Rendon Group in the United States, which is very, very difficult to get public information about. It seems to be a very significant public relations group.

But in some of the reading I've done, it's been made apparent that the people pushing this idea of the African uranium, Niger uranium, were people like Ahmed Shelabi from the Iraqi National Congress. Now here is a group that has been set up primarily to develop a more positive idea that Iraqi nationals themselves would have a key role in any post-conflict situation, yet as you track back through the information process, it comes upon this very significant and strategic piece of information that African uranium might be being imported into Iraq important in the development of weapons of mass destruction, yet as you follow the truth trail back, it becomes weaker and weaker and more tendentious and becomes basically a bit of PR fluff.

Yet Phillip, that bit of tendentious information had a huge impact on the debate around the justification for conflict in Iraq. Again, as an official, how do you reconcile that sort of information and those sorts of debates?

Phillip Reeker: Actually what I look at is what was in the national intelligence estimate, which was created by this intelligence community, headed by George Tenet, the Director of Central Intelligence, and also the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, on the basis of a number of streams of intelligence and information. So I reject the idea that Ahmed Chalabi, or his organisation, has that much influence over the intelligence community; I just don't believe that's the case. They weren't providing this information, there were a number of streams, one of which, some documentation that was provided by an Italian journalist, as we've since discovered, turned out not to be correct, but there were other sources of this information.

It was one minor piece, this was not a big part of the overall view of Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. It wasn't a big part of the argument. It did end up being the famous 16 words in the President's State of the Union address, which were 16 words out of I don't know how many thousand, and may have had some impact, and certainly the President himself has said since that that was a mistake, those probably should not have been there because the intelligence stream was not considered strong enough, not that it could be completely discounted, but wasn't strong enough to rise to the level of including it in that speech.

So I think you have to look at the totality of the information and you have to look at that set of information being one set of information, and certainly the Iraqis for their part, weren't doing anything to try to change that view. After the Secretary's presentation, Secretary Powell's presentation at the United Nations, as he was saying at the time, he was expecting the Iraqis to push back the following day and to find holes in what he was saying and to offer things, and there was nothing.

So each and every one of these things was a piece of an overall picture which decision-makers, right up to the President, had to take into account in their determination of how hard to push Iraq and to deal with this issue of weapons of mass destruction and the broader issue of their complete flouting of the Security Council resolutions for over a decade. People forget that this was something that was festering for a long time and that President Bush, who many people said was simply just going to go ahead and attack Iraq, instead took it to the United Nations on September 12th of last year, and said, 'This is a problem that belongs with the United Nations and let's work together to figure out how we can deal with Iraq, how to answer these questions.'

Mick O'Regan: Phillip, I'd like to now go back as I foreshadowed a moment ago that I wanted to pick up that idea of partisanship I suppose and in some ways I think it's probably understandable that a leader in the position of President George W. Bush was making sort of declaratory statements; in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on America, there was a mood of anxiety, a mood of justifiable fear.

But for the President to come out and say, and I'd be interested in how you heard and contextualised the remark, that 'you're either with us or you're with the terrorists', as a journalist working in Australia and for a public broadcaster where issues of bias are ever present in our mind, I just wondered what the impact of that might have been on journalists working in the mainstream American media, to hear their leader basically say Well you have a choice here. 'The ideas that you promulgate are either going to help us, or if they're not going to help us they're going to help the terrorists.' Do you think that that set the total picture or if you like, created a framework in which then people were dealing with information?

Phillip Reeker: I don't know if you're suggesting that the President was speaking to the media when he said that, he was talking about the world in the context of countries, I mean for instance, this was something we said to Pakistan in the days immediately following September 11th, 'either you're going to be with us in this endeavour, or not', and I think that's what you have to look at. And statements by leaders, it does highlight how much everything that the President of the United States says is completely listened to by the entire world, and perhaps I might suggest, sometimes over-analysed. I mean speeches and remarks are a part of rhetoric, rhetoric is a subject, a field of study in and of itself.

Mick O'Regan: But that's a critical point isn't it, because what we're talking about here are the implications of rhetoric, and I can understand someone defending George W. Bush saying, Look, this was a rhetorical statement. But as you've said, what Mr Bush said is given great weight strategically, politically, economically around the world. I don't want to put it in the same category as President Reagan saying jokingly in a sound check, 'We've just outlawed Russia, the bombing begins in five minutes.'

Phillip Reeker: That was an entirely different -

Mick O'Regan: Indeed, indeed, and that was obviously a throwaway, a controversial remark but a throwaway remark. But what I'm getting at I suppose is trying to understand the media debate, the public information debate that occurred in Australia, in the United States of America, if there's a context to that debate where basically the leader of the American government is drawing a line and saying There are those that are for us and there are those that are against us. How should the media understand a remark like that?

Phillip Reeker: I think the American media continued the way it always has, to challenge just about everything that government says, that's its role, I would hope they do that responsibly, and not just in some sort of kneejerk reaction by presuming that if government is saying something, that leaders are saying something, clearly it must be wrong or it must be dubious or it must be politically motivated. I think again, you have to take a big deep breath and look at the context, the times in which something is being said, and I think Deputy Secretary Armitage in Melbourne this past week, was noting that since September 11, the United States through our officials and the general tone of much of the rhetoric, has not had the traditional optimistic and hopeful tone that I think has characterised America through the decades, indeed the centuries.

We have been struck by fear, by anger at what happened September 11th, and I think our most senior leaders feel that most keenly. They have a responsibility, the most crucial responsibility some might say of being a leader is to protect the country from attack from abroad and the failure to do that in the case of September 11th became the over-riding goal and the endeavour certainly of President Bush's Administration, and something that I think everybody agrees we're going to be dealing with for some time.

Mick O'Regan: Indeed. Phillip, as a final question, what's your view of where spin interacts with the official message?

Phillip Reeker: I think it's a part of it, it's a part of human nature, it's a part of the way we work, and the media, certainly in the United States, is very much a part of that. They're looking for sound bites, they're looking for spin, if you will, and some of them may be challenging it. I think there's a tendency sometimes to go beyond that and just presume that everything is spin, and to become very cynical about a lot of government statements.

And I certainly don't believe that, and I suppose it's easy for everyone to say Oh yes, but he works for them. It's not just that we're dealing with new challenges like the war on terrorism, but it really is a different communications age, we have different media, we have ubiquitous, constant media, we have the unfortunate in my mind, development of much of foreign policy reporting, and news having been turned into some sort of branch of entertainment journalism, which doesn't provide listeners or viewers or even readers with the full context, which is itself infused with spin. And it's a subject of great debate within America certainly, the question of media bias: does it have a liberal bias? Is something that you often hear from the right in America, just as many on the left will now start saying, 'But listen to the clearly-biased right-wing media.'

Mick O'Regan: Bill O'Reilly from the Fox network for example.

Phillip Reeker: Exactly. You have networks that claim to provide no spin, the spin-free zone, but they themselves I think quite easily (could) be accused then of spinning that, or some networks with the famous phrase that 'We report, you decide', but some of their newsreaders and anchors certainly do their part to try to 'help' you decide, and so all kinds of things, like body language and phrasing and timing, and how much information is provided in a report, opposing views being presented, all of that goes into this big mix, and it's got to be very frustrating I think for the average citizen trying to discern information and make their own decisions out there to break through this vast amount of information that's available through our media.

Mick O'Regan: Phillip Reeker, the Deputy Spokesman for the U.S. State Department, who's been visiting Australia in the past week, along with his boss, Richard Armitage.


Mick O'Regan: Now to the other major theatre in the information war, Great Britain. As we've discussed on this program in past weeks, the BBC has become a key player in the Hutton Inquiry, which is investigating the circumstances which led ultimately to the death of the British scientist, David Kelly.

David Kelly apparently took his own life after he was exposed as the source of controversial reports by the BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan, which suggested that the Blair government had misrepresented the threat posed by Iraqi weapons.

This week the Blair government's Director of Communications, Alistair Campbell, has been in the witness box, vigorously denying that he tried to exaggerate the threat from Saddam Hussein. In fact Mr Campbell told the inquiry he had no influence on the wording of a dossier on Iraqi weapons, nor did he play any role in a government decision to confirm Dr Kelly as the probable BBC source.

The Hutton Inquiry has major implications for both the government and the BBC, and according to David Aaronovitch, a leading columnist with The Guardian and The Observer newspapers, it will provide a unique insight into the culture of secrecy that operates in both the government and the media.

David Aaronovitch: We have never really seen anything like this before, because what has happened is that both the BBC and the government have just given over all this material to the government that normally would have been classified, completely confidential, completely top secret, probably nobody would have seen it, and we are having the innards of two of the big organisations of Britain, and particularly 10 Downing Street, laid bare before us, and it has to be said that firstly, it's a much less depressing story than a lot of people had imagined, there's a lot less skulduggery goes on than people imagine, and second, that it is also fascinating, because what you see is the real life West-Wing in front of us, and we're not used to this. We live in a culture of secrecy in this country, we always have, and the Hutton Inquiry is I think blasting a hole through this culture of secrecy, which will never be filled up again.

Mick O'Regan: To what extent, in your opinion, has it become an evaluation of the quality of the BBC's journalism and also the effectiveness of their editorial protocol?

David Aaronovitch: I think what has emerged are things for the public about the way in which the BBC conducts its business, and the way in which frankly, journalists conduct their business, which I as a journalist and you as a journalist might already have known. I mean after all, we're privy to the kind of memos that go around in organisations and if we wrack our brains we can think of the moments when our bosses haven't really wanted to square with the public, or maybe even where we haven't wanted to square with the public. But of course for people outside, they don't know these things, so that's come; how line managers talk about their journalists has come as a very interesting revelation.

But there has been a particular perception about this moment in the BBC's journalism. Now what we face here in Britain, and it may be true in Australia as well, is intense media competition, and in fact the business of the interface between politics and media is characterised significantly by this media competition. Competition to get a new story, competition to be the first with a twist to the story, and you also have a kind of prick mentality which people rush like anything for what they perceive to be the major turns in the story, such as spin or such as sleaze, and then try and get ahead of it.

Now what used to happen was that the BBC used to stand somewhat aloof from this fray. It wasn't essentially a story-getting organisation, except for one or two investigative programs on television and radio. Now what's happened is that programs like the 'Today' program and other programs, they all want to have their own story-getters, and they employ some of these people who aren't content to report so much as frankly, to make the news, and this is something which is coming as a bit of a shock, because these people's attitudes towards what constitutes news and how you present it, is slightly different, and I think it's that aspect of what the BBC's been doing, which is going to take quite a sharp knock at the end of the Hutton process.

Mick O'Regan: Now the Director of Communications for Downing Street is Alistair Campbell, and he's been a central player in the whole developments that led up to the calling of the Hutton Inquiry. Now Alistair Campbell really drew swords, if you like, with Andrew Gilligan and the 'Today' program on Radio 4 on the BBC, over the reports that the dossier on Iraq had been 'sexed up'. Now Mr Campbell has now given testimony to the Hutton Inquiry; can I get you to take me through what Alistair Campbell said and what the significance of his testimony has been?

David Aaronovitch: Essentially what Alistair Campbell said was, look, the reference to the 45-minute claim, which was the big thing that Andrew Gilligan mentioned in his report. Essentially Andrew Gilligan's report said this I have spoken to an incredibly senior person who tells me that this claim that Saddam Hussein's battle plan allows for chemical or biological weapons to be deployed within 45 minutes, that that claim was from a single debatable source, that intelligence sources didn't want to include it within a dossier, that it was included in a late draft of the dossier at the insistence of Downing Street and that his source had said to him, Gilligan said this in The Mail on Sunday, that the person who was responsible for this was Campbell.

Now what Alistair Campbell said in his evidence to Hutton was Actually the whole business of the dossier was owned by the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, John Scarlett, at John Scarlett's insistence, that we did not write it, we did not insert intelligence into it, we didn't tell them what intelligence to put into it, and actually we virtually said to them, we want to make sure this is cast-iron, so it's got to be yours, and Scarlett said, I will write it, I will put everything in. And therefore the first time that Campbell saw the 45-minute claim was when Scarlett's draft of the dossier came back to him. Now if that's true, then that means that the source that Gilligan was relying on, in other words, Kelly, was simply straightforwardly and completely wrong.

Now if that's the case, then that opens up a can of worms obviously for the BBC. Why were they relying upon this wrong source? Why were they so insistent in the face of the evidence on not going back and suggesting that maybe there had been a problem with this? Why were they so obstinate in the face of all this? And it also would explain why Campbell became so angry, if his account is substantially correct. And I have to say that the consensus around today was that it was likely to be correct. Now that doesn't mean that there aren't other questions that could be asked, was it possible that somebody somehow or other was suggesting gently to John Scarlett that it might be a good idea if certain things were included, but I have to say there's absolutely no evidence for that yet, so that could only be a conjecture.

Mick O'Regan: In Australia there is often from government an accusation that the national broadcaster adopts an oppositional agenda, that in political matters and in its coverage of the government, the national broadcaster feels almost duty bound to constantly oppose and critique government initiatives. Is that the case in Britain, and do you think the Hutton Inquiry will seek to unravel those allegations about an oppositional character?

David Aaronovitch: No, I wouldn't expect Hutton to take a particular view on whether or not the BBC was being oppositionist, largely because I don't think it's really substantial. I don't think that when you look at it, what emerges is a BBC, which has a significant agenda, there are too many parts of the BBC, there are too many different journalists, there are too many different programs. Some programs, like the 'Today' program, it sometimes feels as if it's true. Actually as some of my colleagues and I on other papers have pointed out, if the BBC is anti-anything, it's just got a slight anti-politician tendency, which is rather too flip and rather too easy in my opinion. So I doubt whether Hutton will find that.

What Hutton may ask is about the individual journalist and the way in which the journalist behaved, and also about how the BBC behaved once they'd received the complaint, whether or not they then treated the complaint fairly. I doubt very much whether Hutton will say that the broad thrust of BBC journalism was wrong, because in general I think most people in this country that the broadcasts of BBC journalism is good, and don't forget also there's a huge problem for the BBC over the Iraqi war, which was there had been a demonstration of a million people against the war, there had been a very large outcry, particularly amongst the middle class stratas from which the BBC is typically drawn.

So I think a large number of BBC people would have known nothing but people who were hugely opposed to the war. That's quite a difficult circumstance within which to work, and not at some level or other to reflect it. I myself was critical of the BBC for not looking for other voices. What quite often used to happen was you used to have a politician who was in favour of the war and then a whole series of voices of the population who were against the war, and the impression that was created was it was all the population against the politicians over the war, and I think that was probably wrong, and I think after a while they saw that was wrong and they changed it.

Mick O'Regan: Just on the BBC's journalism, if you look at the terms of reference that Lord Hutton has to work with here, is it feasible that one of the outcomes of his inquiry, which is primarily of course looking at the death of Dr David Kelly and the allegations that have arisen in relation to the preparation of the dossier, but if we look at the terms of reference, is one possibility that Lord Hutton will actually set down parameters by which we can judge national broadcasters, or judge the quality of an institution like the BBC in both its editorial protocols and its journalism?

David Aaronovitch: No I doubt that very much. One of the first things that if Hutton looks into it he will discover, is that the BBC has an incredibly intricate and complex series of protocols, which have served it incredibly well in the past, and which are far more significant and detailed than those that obtain for any other broadcaster, and certainly for any newspaper. The BBC's ethics to be blunt, are far in advance of the ethics of any other section of journalists in this country. So I doubt very much whether that will be Hutton's conclusion, and I doubt very much whether he would want to get drawn into anything of that sort, so I think he will stick to the narrower point of whether in general in this instance, people behaved well.

Mick O'Regan: Just as a final question then, in the broader context of media ownership and regulation in Great Britain, there is of course a Bill that's been before I think both Houses of Parliament now, looking at changes to the cross-media ownership structure. In that context, where there are decisions being made about who can own what media, are there implications here that if there is a high degree of dissatisfaction with the BBC emanating from the government, that that could play out in the way in which that regulatory framework is restructured?

David Aaronovitch: There's an argument which many people have mounted and which government has not been as sympathetic to generally, which is the BBC, instead of being run by this strange organisation, the Board of Governors, and which is essentially put in place by the government, but which really acts as a bit of a patsy to the Director-General of the BBC, and very, very rarely, and in very few cases, makes trouble for the Director-General of the BBC, that that body should be replaced as the regulator by the what's called OFCOM, the Office of Communications, the communications regulator, who will be regulating other parts of British television and British broadcasting.

The BBC argues that if it's regulated by anybody but its own Governors, then in that case it will no longer be truly independent, and other people argue, including the independent television channels and so on, that actually the BBC ought to come under OFCOM. Now it's quite an abstract argument in some ways. In some ways it would be neater if the BBC came under OFCOM, but in other ways, we have to accept that the system has worked pretty well at guaranteeing the independence of the BBC and that at the end of the day, is a very important consideration. So somebody like me, for instance, who can see the arguments about bringing the BBC under OFCOM, nevertheless concludes that actually the BBC is better off self-regulating and under the position of the Governors. But what the BBC has done in this instance has not helped that argument at all.

Mick O'Regan: The London-based political correspondent with both The Guardian and The Observer newspapers, David Aaronovitch.


Mick O'Regan: And that's The Media Report for this week. My thanks to producer Andrew Davies. Technical production this week by Peter McMurray.

Guests on this program:
David Aaronovitch
Columnist, with the Guardian & Observer newspapers
Phillip Reeker
Deputy Spokesman, US State Department

Presenter: Mick O'Regan
Producer: Andrew Davies

© 2003 Australian Broadcasting Corporation

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