BOB GARFIELD: On July 28th ABC's Nightline ran an interview conducted by independent Russian journalist Andrei Babitsky with Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev.
TED KOPPEL: He is a stone cold killer whose very acts define him. (MUSIC, GUNSHOTS, SIREN) The 2002 Moscow theater hostage-taking and massacre, 129 dead, hundreds more injured. [GUNFIRE] The Beslan School hostage-taking and massacre, nearly 400 dead, more than 700 injured. (MUSIC, GUNSHOTS)
SHAMIL BASAYEV(through translator): Okay, I admit, I'm a bad guy, a bandit, a terrorist. So I'm a terrorist. But what you call them?
BOB GARFIELD: Koppel concluded the program by explaining his reason for defying Russia's wishes in giving national airtime to a self-described "terrorist."
TED KOPPEL: Freedom of speech is never an issue when a popular person expresses an acceptable point of view. It is of real value only because it guarantees us access to the unpopular, espousing the unacceptable. Then we can reject or accept it, condemn it or embrace it. No one should have the authority to make that decision for us, not our government, and certainly not somebody else's.
BOB GARFIELD: Nightline's broadcast prompted the Russian government to revoke Russian accreditations for all ABC journalists, which isn't surprising. Russia is not the first nation to try to keep the media from giving terrorists face time. In fact, the Russian interviewer, Babitsky, cited a clear parallel when he described Basayev as a terrorist, quote, "more like the I.R.A. than Osama bin Laden." The fact is the I.R.A. and its political wing Sinn Fein fought with the British government for 30 years over access to the media. Anne Cadwallader is a long-time British reporter in Belfast. She joins us now. Anne, welcome to the show.
ANNE CADWALLADER: And a welcome to you, Bob, from Belfast.
BOB GARFIELD: Anne, how did the British press initially deal with the rising violence in Northern Ireland?
ANNE CADWALLADER: Well, it was always a very difficult problem for the press because they wanted, on the one hand, to let people know why such violence was being carried out, but on the other hand, they didn't want to be seen in any way as sympathetic to it. Virtually every single news conference that Sinn Fein held, whether it was about the political situation, about policing, or about something as abstruse as farming or schools, there would always be a question from the media about how they could justify violence and always a question about when that violence would be brought to an end. Sinn Fein became very adept at answering questions about violence in a very reasonable-sounding way. We, as journalists, became very adept at asking questions in a very hostile way. But nevertheless, we all had to go through it time after time.
BOB GARFIELD: The media don't necessarily have to evince sympathy in order to be aiding a terrorist or a militant organization. Margaret Thatcher described the television coverage of the I.R.A. as "the oxygen of publicity." And she was prompted in '88 to change the rules for covering Sinn Fein and the I.R.A. Tell me about that.
ANNE CADWALLADER: Some British M.P.'s, particularly those on the far right, did regard any kind of publicity for Sinn Fein, even if it was serious questioning, as some kind of justification for violence. And eventually after an upsurge in violence, in which a number of British soldiers were killed, there was a ban brought in, which meant that Sinn Fein interviewees could not be questioned live on air or recorded on air. What we ended up doing as broadcasters was hiring actors, often some penurious actors at the start of their careers, and providing them with an unexpected bonus because they spoke the words of the Sinn Fein spokespeople, and they were lip synced into the pictures.
BOB GARFIELD: Was there any way to gauge the public's reaction to the theatrics of hiring people to mouth the words of militants?
ANNE CADWALLADER: People just sort of got used to it. You know, and you got used to the idea that Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, his words would be spoken by one actor, and Gerry Adams' words would be spoken by another actor. Sometimes his mouth seemed to be doing one thing and the words coming out were slightly different. It did appear absurd, and I think fairly soon the British government accepted that it wasn't working the way they'd figured it would. But nevertheless, they didn't withdraw that ban until the peace process began to bear fruit.
BOB GARFIELD: But isn't there something to the idea that any attention paid to terroristic acts is exactly what the terroristic acts were intended to produce?
ANNE CADWALLADER: Well, of course, politicians tend to look to the short term. And I suppose in a way what Margaret Thatcher got with her censorship, her ban in Sinn Fein, was a quick fix. But there aren't really any quick fixes to terrorism or to paramilitary violence. There can only be a long-term political fix. And I think in the end that lesson was learned here. The ban had no effect, really, on what was happening on the ground on the violence. It looked good. It was something she could say she'd done.
BOB GARFIELD: I guess it's easy to see why the Russians are infuriated to see the killer of children interviewed on a prominent American news program. But is it counterproductive for the government of Russia to decertify ABC News, to suppress news coverage of that movement?
ANNE CADWALLADER: Well, obviously, what happened in Beslan was horrendous and it couldn't be justified by any normal standards. But I think in a situation where you have a civil war, both the society in which that war is being waged and outsiders internationally have a right and have a duty to inform themselves as to why this is going on, so that journalists and the state is not nannying people, is not thinking for people. Democracy requires that citizens inform themselves. And if journalists don't inform citizens, who else is going to?
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I understand that you're in Northern Ireland but I assume you've been paying fairly close attention to the coverage of the London bombings. And I wondered if you noticed how the experience dealing with the I.R.A. has informed the current coverage of the bombings?
ANNE CADWALLADER: Well, certainly Tony Blair shows no sign of intending to repeat the performance of Mrs. Thatcher's government in Northern Ireland by banning any one particular group. It seems that what he's going to be trying to do is change the law on incitement to hatred, maybe to take a more sophisticated and more subtle approach than the blunder bus/sledgehammer approach that we saw in Northern Ireland that just simply didn't really work in any way, shape or form.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Well Anne, thank you very much.
ANNE CADWALLADER: Thanks, and goodbye.
BOB GARFIELD: Anne Cadwallader is a reporter for Independent Network News. She spoke to us from Belfast, Northern Ireland. (MUSIC)
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, the writers of reality TV seek protection, and the real life foils of fake TV news.