Cultural Diplomacy News (CDN)
Clive Myrie (BBC Journalist)

09.12.2011 - Interview conducted by Maja Kranjc, Joakim Matthiesen, Claire Leavitt & Myriam Zekagh

Q: Great Britain is a country on the fringes of Europe and has historically enjoyed a special relationship with the US. Can you tell us a bit about the concept of European identity in Britain, which could be argued to be less present in countries that are located on the borders of Europe?

Well, as I was saying in my speech, it’s interesting that this idea of England—the UK, Britain—being on the borders of Europe has been built up, because it shouldn’t be that way. We’re only 20 miles from France, there’s only a little strip of water that separates us and, as I said, our royal family is German. Before that they were Dutch and before that they were French. The French kings, as part of their kingdom, they had Britain, and British kings had Brittany and parts of northern France, so again, it’s strange that this idea is built up, but it is there. And our closeness to the US is historical and long established. There’s a commonality of language, which helps; we Brits don’t learn languages very well, we have tin ears when it comes to languages, so yeah, there’s a sense that we are on the fringes, but if you look at the amount of trade we have with the EU, our integration in terms of just the places we go on holiday, we are a part of Europe. But there’s certainly a mindset within the British national identity that does feel separate and cut off and, strangely, feels closer to America through a whole range of things, including language, than to France or Germany or Holland. It’s a weird thing, but our leaders want us to be part of Europe and want us to be there in the driving seat, not just the passenger’s seat, and that’s the conflict that is going on in Britain at the moment, particularly at the time when you have a conservative ruling party that has a lot of leaders in it that are skeptical of the European experiment.

Q: I have a question along those lines, related to the trans-Atlantic relationship. As a reporter you have followed three US presidential administrations—Clinton, Bush and Obama—and based on your observations and insights from this experience, how has the relationship between the US and Britain changed since Obama took office? More generally, how have you seen the relationship between the EU and the US change?

Since President Obama took the reins in the White House there has been a change, brought about by necessity: Obama is the first US president that rules over a nation, like America, that is seeing its power decline, not necessarily militarily but economically, which is really the important thing these days. And a president like Obama, you know, he was born in Hawaii, he knows Asia, he lived for a time in Indonesia, he’s a well-traveled man, he comes from African stock…He’s not as focused on the European trans-Atlantic relationship as previous presidents have been. And frankly, he has to be more focused on Asia, particularly China. Americans don’t like this—the fact of him going, cap in hand, and bowing to a Chinese premier or a Japanese premier is something that’s totally anathema to a lot of Americans. He’s not bowing out of deference, he’s just being polite, but it’s seen as symptomatic of America losing prestige and power. But that’s the reality. For the last 15 years we have had a debt-fueled boom in the West, where the Chinese made goods and the Germans made cars and they lent us the money to buy those goods and that’s why the global economy is screwed at the moment. And rebalancing that is the key, and I think that has forced a change in emphasis on the part of President Obama. Sorry, I just said “screwed” there, didn’t I—oh God, I just said it again. But that’s all on an economic level. On the military side, intelligence sharing, which is crucial if you’re going to prevent conflicts or manage conflicts that do arise, that relationship is critical, it is key, particularly at a time of Islamic fundamentalism, rogue states like North Korea and Iran…. So that kind of cooperation is fundamental and will always be there, whether it’s Bush or Clinton or Obama or whoever. But economically, yes, Obama has turned his eyes a bit away from Britain and the EU and is focusing on China, but again, he has to do that.

Q: I have a question along those lines, and perhaps you disagree with the fundamental premise of my question, but I think, particularly in the first decade of the twenty-first century, European integration efforts were driven by this need to combat US hegemony. Do you think that Britain will be ultimately forced to choose between the EU and its special relationship with America—or do you think it can do both at the same time?

I think the premise of your question assumes that America at some point could be a force for ill. Well, okay, there are fundamental differences between the EU, and the European idea of how society should run, and America. There is much more of a social care system in Europe, and the idea that the government has a role to play in people’s lives, than in America. We don’t have the death penalty. We don’t execute anybody, let alone children, which is what happens in the US—well, not in every state. But there are differences, certainly in terms of the historical connection between Europe, Britain and America—particularly between Britain and America. The fundamental ideals of liberty, equality, diversity, those are common things shared by both sides. It’s not as if America has turned into North Korea. There’s nothing wrong with getting close to America; I think the key for British leaders is to try to balance the two. Europe is important, America is important, but it’s the people who think we have to choose between one or the other that are making the mistake, and the Euroskeptics that are in the conservative party at the moment do want to choose. They want that Atlantic bridge to the US, they want to lessen the influence of Europe, for whatever reason, and I think that’s a mistake. I think British leaders need to find a way through because both sides can bring something to the table.

Q: So you don’t subscribe to the idea that’s been advocated by Robert Kagan and some other American neoconservatives that there’s a fundamental theoretical divide between how America sees the world and how Europe sees the world?

No, I don’t think that’s the case. There might be a fundamental divide between how some neoconservatives see the world, like Robert Kagan, and some of those in Europe. Frankly, there is a fundamental divide between a lot of Americans and neoconservatives, and we saw that in 2008 when that whole idea was kicked out of the White House.

Q: I have a question that’s a bit out of context; it’s more related to your role as a journalist, and the state of modern media and how it’s developing. I would like you to reflect a bit upon your role as a journalist and as a former international correspondent. In a world that is increasingly globalizing and in which communications networks are rapidly growing, how do you feel about the rise of blogs and social media, and what is the role of journalists in light of the proliferating role of mass communication?

Well, it depends on what you call journalists. You can have so-called “citizen journalists,” blogging this, blogging that, and that can be useful and important to any discourse…but it tends to be the kind of thing that doesn’t last. They say journalism is the first page of history, or at least the first couple of lines, where the trained journalist is trying to carve a way between what’s on this side and what’s on that side and is trying to be objective, if that is ever really possible….I think that’s the first page of history. The Internet is full of people giving their opinions, but nine times out of ten, 99.9 percent of those opinions are the opinions of a bloke in the pub. They’re ill-informed, based on what they see and what’s in front of them, not based on any historiography or any sense of context. And I think that’s where there will still be a role for the professional journalists. But I’m not dissing bloggers or anything….

Q: Well, what I was getting at was more like, for example, in China, where we have people like Ai Wei Wei bogging about conditions in the country…

Very important.

Q: …Where are the limitations of journalists in a world like this? Where there are countries where you do not have the ability to get information out of the country, and in this case we have a blogger who got something out of China that perhaps mainstream journalists couldn’t do….

Sure, sure, no, and that’s very important, especially in those areas where journalists cannot work legitimately. And we see that every day in Syria: Foreign journalists are not allowed in unless it’s heavily, heavily chaperoned and censored, as with Barbara Walters interviewing Bashar al-Assad the other day. I mean, you’re being giving some kind of window into what’s going on, and that’s important. So the Syrian government thinks they’ve got everything under control, but they haven’t, and the more those pictures come out—the more that those brave demonstrators film something on their mobile phone and somehow get it out to the rest of the world, the more the regime gets itself into difficulty. I mean, look, I can’t run around Syria with a camera crew at the moment, that’s just not going to happen, at least not freely and fairly enough to be able to do my job. Bloggers, or people with their mobile phones, they can add to the narrative and get a flavor out about what is going on. I was embedded with British forces during the Iraq war; I was with the Royal Marines, and we went in with special forces from Kuwait into southern Iraq into the al-Faw peninsula, the oil area down there, and I got a tiny snapshot of what was going on, through the lens of these men that I was reporting with. I had no idea what was going on in Baghdad, I had no idea what was going on in Basra. We were moving toward Basra but I didn’t know what was going on, I could only give a snapshot of what I could see of the battlefield. And the BBC made sure that whenever my pieces were introduced onscreen, that point was made: This is a tiny snapshot of the war. And I think the bloggers, Ai Wei Wei, you know, he’s giving a particular snapshot of what’s going on, and the people in Syria with the mobile phones…you’re not getting a whole picture, but that doesn’t mean its not valid, it doesn’t mean its not important. But, going back to what I said, it’s possibly a few sentences on that first page of history, not the first page.

Q: Just to follow up on the role of journalists, bloggers, but also artists and trans-national communities: For example, the Congolese communities in Brussels launched riots because of how undemocratic the elections in the Congo were last week, and the international community—even at the state level, at least in the EU and the US—is trying to democratize the world. To what extent do you think cultural diplomacy is promoting global democracy?

Well, it can. It depends on who’s watching, it depends on who sees that one moment that can change everything. I mean, we all know about that young man in Tunisia—that was the final straw that led to the kind of mass protests that ended up changing the world. I was anchoring our news about three or four months ago, I can’t remember when it was, and it was the demonstrations on Wall Street. There had been a few days of them, but they’d only just gotten the attention of the mass media and they were being broadcast by TV stations and it was beginning to get momentum and turn into a big thing. But our interview was quite early in the process of that mass movement, so some of my questions were based on, well, where is this going to go? Is anyone listening to you? Do you really think you’re going to be able to change anything? I’m playing devil’s advocate here, of course. Do you really think any of this is going to have any effect whatsoever on the suits on Wall Street and the lobbyists in Washington, and that kind of thing, and of course the response was, well, we’ve just go tot keep going, and we’ve just got to keep pushing. And what happens? The protests multiply in the US, you get one protest in London that tries to occupy some of the banks in central London, they can’t get in, so they sit outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is a British icon that’s known around the world. So they realize, hey, we’re on to something here. It’s an accident that we ended up here, but we’re on to something here. They stay there, they end up forcing the rector to resign because of his attitude to them, and it totally opens up the argument about the role of the Church in all of this. How can the Church sit there and allow—or not say anything when people are being thrown out of their jobs? And yet across the road in Threadneedle Street, the government of Wall Street, the people in the banks are making a fortune, and the Church of England has said nothing, absolutely nothing, until they were forced to by these demonstrators. And I suppose if you’re a demonstrator you’ve just got to have the force of your convictions to want to keep going. I mean, every night when I’m anchoring and I’m interviewing someone on the streets of Syria or wherever, I’m saying, well, you’re getting cut down. Are you still going to take to the streets? And they say yes, absolutely. Six hundred arrests in Moscow over the last two to three days, six hundred arrests, and they’re still out there. And I suppose that’s the key: You’ve just got to keep pushing, and hope that the force of momentum and the force of history is on your side. And it was definitely on the side of that man in Tunisia. And as for cultural diplomacy…well, it’s really just about being a nuisance, being annoying, and being out there, being in the face of the authorities, in the face of people who don’t want to give you what you want. I suppose it’s—what’s the phrase? “War is diplomacy by another name”? Sometimes, you’ve just got to carry a big stick, sometimes you’ve just got to sit on the pavement and refuse to move. Sometimes you’ve got to set yourself on fire.

Q: I have one last question. How do you respond to charges that have been leveled at traditional media outlets that say journalists are too cozy with the people they cover? I know this has gotten a lot of play in Washington, whether it’s the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, with the glitz and glamour, where David Gregory is jawing with Karl Rove….I mean, do you think there’s any truth to that?

Oh, totally, totally. I’ve been to two of those dinners, and they’re great. My wife looks up, and there’s Ben Affleck, and then there’s some supermodel wandering over there, and there’s Karl Rove…look, it’s great. I have to say, its great. But is the relationship too cozy? Of course. It’s disgusting, it’s absolutely disgraceful. But having said that, you need to get a certain proximity to these people in order to get some of the good stuff, and I think the key is being able to weed out the wheat from the chaff. Judith Miller didn’t do that. She swallowed it hook, line and sinker, and she swallowed it because it was a great contact and a great story. But it wasn’t just her, it was her bosses at the New York Times, they did it too. It was great to have these exclusives. But, yes, you’ve got to get close to these people to get anything. The hope is that you don’t get so close that you’re compromised, and that’s what can happen. But yeah, at the first White House Correspondents’ Dinner, you know, so I’m Clive Myrie, and below me in the order was Ralph Nader—so, Myrie “M,” and then “N”—and he frankly was responsible for George W. Bush getting the White House. So as soon as I saw him, my wife said “RALPH NADER!!!” and I was like, great.

Q: Do you think that you risk getting cut off from these people if you are too critical in your stories?

You know, you shouldn’t, you shouldn’t, and I get the impression—I’ve never been a political correspondent in London, but I get the impression that that isn’t the case with the journalists and the politicians. They know the game, they know that, look, they try to spin as much as possible and get away with what they can, but they know journalists have to be honest and have to speak truth to power. And I get the impression it’s a fairly even playing field. Washington I don’t know about. Well, I do, and I think it’s more difficult, much more difficult, because access to those leaves of power…I mean, okay, you can talk to senators, you can talk to congressmen, but to get to the heart of power, in the White House, it’s just a few people. But to be honest with you…I covered the Clinton White House, and it was a lot freer, a lot more open, before the War on Terror, before the debacle of Iraq and that mistrust the public has in the media…it was more open, it was freer, and that has changed. It’s changed a lot, actually.