Katrina spurs US media to challenge authorities

By Caitlin Pike

Covering Hurricane Katrina woke the US media from “a great sleep”
and could have started a new wave of unshackled US reporting, a
discussion at the Frontline Club in London was told.

BBC special correspondent Gavin Hewitt and The Guardian’s Duncan
Campbell, both of whom reported from New Orleans, joined executive
producer of NewsXchange John Owen and the audience to discuss coverage
of Katrina – from the allegations of BBC bias against the US
administration to the zeal with which American journalists questioned
the authorities during the disaster.

The panel said US coverage
of Katrina highlighted how ineffectual the majority of post-9/11
reporting had been in holding the US Government to account.

Campbell
said: “American media has woken up from a great sleep it has been in
since 9/11 and before this I can’t remember that kind of questioning of
public officials. It wasn’t just the levees that were broken, but
respect for officials went too, which is revealing and in contrast with
the coverage leading up to the Iraq war.”

Hewitt claimed
journalists had been in a position of power during the aftermath of the
hurricane because they were on the scene before the emergency services.

“It
struck me at the time that one of the problems is that if you stand
outside the White House or Downing Street or the Pentagon, where do you
get your information from? Mostly from officials and you report ‘The
White House said this’ or ‘Downing Street said that’, but this
situation was different – journalists had their own sources and were
challenging officials, telling them what they had seen. They were
unshackled and that gave them a sense of authority, a sense of power.”

Hewitt
said BBC journalists reporting from New Orleans had no agenda and he
could not imagine that reporters were “sitting around and saying ‘now
here’s a chance to kick the Bush administration'”.

● Tony Blair
confirmed he had commented on the BBC’s coverage of Katrina during a
private conversation with media giant Rupert Murdoch.

Speaking to
Andrew Marr on BBC One’s Sunday AM, the Prime Minister said he “didn’t
much care for” some BBC reports about the hurricane, but added: “I’m
not making any great criticism of the BBC – you carry on doing whatever
you want.”

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