Two new films examining how the Iraq war was reported have been released. Control Room follows the Arabic news channel al-Jazeera, while Out-Foxed looks at Rupert Murdoch's Fox News.
(Edited highlights of the panel's review taken from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight Review.)
Tony Parsons, let's start with the Control Room. al-Jazeera's was the big journalistic story to come out of the war about journalism. Did we learn a lot in this film?
Control Room seeks to humanise al-Jazeera. When we think of al-Jazeera, we think of blood and gore, and images being displayed that we would never see on our own media. It's fascinating watching the two documentaries back to back. On one side, you have these crazed religious fundamentalists and on the other side you have al-Jazeera. What was really scary about watching both was that both sides clearly believe they have a monopoly on goodness. I found that quite terrifying. The Fox documentary seeks to nail the channel, and it did that. It was just so over the top. It was closer to Spinal Tap than Michael Moore. I felt I knew all I needed to know about Fox after that. Control Room only scraped the surface with al-Jazeera. There were questions that weren't answered. I wanted to know what they thought about radical Islam. They are watched by 40 million Arab viewers. I felt that Fox News were a bunch of nuts and I feel that al-Jazeera matters in the global context in the way that Fox News never could.
Natasha Walter, they are both films about what objectivity and bias mean. It's difficult to watch when you are thinking how objective or biased are they?
Yes. I thought the Control Room was a way better film in terms of trying to get the difficulties. It wasn't a film trying to say these guys felt they had a monopoly on goodness. I didn't feel that. I felt the people behind al-Jazeera looked as though they were on a quest, trying to find things out. It was a much more subtle film than you are getting over. There was the guy who said, "I want to exchange the Arab nightmare for the American dream. I want to take my kids to America." Where does
That was the old Yankee go home and take me with you.
It had its drawbacks as a film, but it was very moving that it was made by an Arab-American woman for an American audience about this Arab TV station that's been demonised by America.
You felt sympathetic to the Arab journalists in the way that the guys and the women that work for Fox News are either idiots spouting...
Al-Jazeera are not like Fox News. These journalists clearly feel much more strongly about free speech than those at Fox News do.
They would both say they were on the right side, which is why I suppose the two films make an interesting comparison.
Al-Jazeera came over as much more open. I think it would have made a better film if she had come out of the control room a bit and showed the Arab world. It's banned in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. We see it as pro-Palestinian...
When they were showing these scared American kids from Texas being interrogated, when some of them were wounded, which I thought was just unforgivable that that would be done...
How did you think Fox covered the Abu Ghraib story?
What went on in that prison was considered a scandal.
Al-Jazeera is demonised every day in the States.
We can see the feelings this film can engender.
Most of the al-Jazeera journalists worked for BBC World Service. Hassan Ibrahim had been described as the head of BBC World Service News. In fact I discovered he had been an assistant producer there. He was very interesting. His wife worked in Jerusalem and spoke Hebrew. There were many ironies about their position. He also said at some point, "If a pipe breaks in Damascus, they blame the Israelis." I found this, they do tend to have this slightly paranoid view. I don't think it was fantastically well made but it was an interesting film. There were thousands of feet of rushes and they cut something together which was very revealing.
The sense of rage in both Fox News and al-Jazeera came through. News is not written with hindsight, and there was, I am sure I wasn't the only viewer that was surprised at the number of women that work for al-Jazeera. That was a real eye-opener for me. One of the women journalists when Baghdad fell, when Saddam's statue came down, there was not one
pro-Saddam Hussein journalist on al-Jazeera, and yet there was the sense of humiliation. "We have lost Baghdad."
That's what made the Control Room was such a good film.
Few people have accused Fox News of subtlety and perhaps the big moment in the film is when the anchor man for Fox News is interviewing Jeremy Glick, the son of a man killed on September 11th.
VT FROM OUTFOXED:
In respect for your father... Please... Shut up. In respect for your father, who was a port authority worker, a fine American, who got killed unnecessarily by barbarians...
By radical extremists trained by this government. Not the people of America. The small minority...
Cut his mike. I am not going to dress you down any more out of respect for your father. We are back in a moment.
Are we done?
You see him gesturing to security guards, and then came the after-film performance.
A scene from Out-Foxed. We go on to be told that the staff kept Glick away from O'Riley because they felt he might do violence to him in the hospitality room. The anchor man is pulling rank on how grieving and patriotic the man should be.
I thought it was a shocking, absolutely appalling scene. Fox has devised a system where they believe the way you tell news has to be a narrative, which has to work out in a certain way. Apparently this is good for profit, and other networks are following, which is very worrying.
They keep serving all these premises that Fox News get they call them "squirrelly liberals". They pick out wimpy-looking guys. You think it sounds far-fetched, then they show some Republican who looks as though he has been pumping iron and pumping steroids and there is a little guy and he looks just like a squirrel. They seem to wheel him in.
It was revealing about Fox News in that way if you have never seen it. I felt it stayed too much with the kind of media analysts all the time talking over it. It showed you why Michael Moore is such a brilliant documentary maker. When at the beginning they showed how Fox called the election too soon for Bush and they stayed with the analysts there all the
time, whereas Moore would have opened that out and gone to the people that felt betrayed.
I thought Michael Moore in 9/11 declares Bush's first cousin called it for Bush. What worried me was that, in a film which is about bias in Fox, I have to say that Fox say they were not asked for permission to show the clips and weren't allowed to put up a spokesman. It's quite tendentious in places. There was an implication it was balancing what they see as the liberal bias of the networks. They weren't claiming it was unbiased. O'Riley is a talk show host, not some sort of news anchor.
I don't think the film had to be balanced in that way because Fox can put out the counterweight for that any hour of the day and beam it into millions of homes. It's fair enough in a film like this to declare yourself as an attack on Fox News and not have to put in the other side.
I am ending this discussion for reasons of time only, not for bias! Control Room opened in London today. It will be shown on BBC Two next month. Out-Foxed is available as an American DVD.