The Public Eye Chat With ... Richard Roth (Part II)

It's Friday -- which is the day after Thursday -- and that means it's time for us to continue the Public Eye Chat we began yesterday (discussing Vatican media protocol, among other things) with CBS News London Correspondent Richard Roth.

Matthew Felling: As for the events of the last week, were there any surprises or difficulties that popped up in covering the bombing attempts?

Richard Roth: There's always difficulty here in the lack of information released once the criminal process is underway. For example, when the police tell you that someone's arrested – I'm on one of the alert systems that the Metropolitan Police have – here's the kind of detail you get: "We've arrested A, B and C" is what the e-mail says. They may have ages, towns where the arrests took place. But there'll be nothing more than that. Slowly, some of the information may filter out, but on an official level, they're so careful and so concerned about pre-trial publicity that could influence the criminal justice process that there's very little specific information that comes out. That's what you see unfolding in this story. There's going to be a lot [of media coverage] about this that I'll bet will either be wrong in substance or wrong in small details by the time this procedure is over. That's always a frustration.

I was only on this story on Friday, when it was very quickly developing in terms of what had actually happened. But it was essentially the same frustrations all journalists feel who want to get facts and get enough of them right in a story that's breaking fast.

Matthew Felling: Have you seen any differences in how the UK is covering the attacks as opposed to the American media?

Richard Roth: The British press is both more careful and more reckless than the American media. Actually, they probably represent the same range you'll find in America. There is more unsubstantiated detail that appears in the British press and a lot more speculation that's not sourced in any way.

But that's more of a European difference, or maybe even a worldwide difference between the journalistic tradition in America and that elsewhere. It reminds me of when I was in Italy and Sophia Loren was briefly put in jail in Naples. There was no information coming out except what you would read in the newspapers. And the way the newspapers would preface their information would be [Italian for "Voices are Saying"] and then they would report whatever they wanted – whether she had her cappuccino cool or tepid or hot, how many times a day she had it, what sauce she had on her pasta, whether she was getting phone calls or making phone calls, who was visiting her, etc. It could all have been fiction, but the press was protected because they were saying "Voices are Saying."

Some of that still goes on here in England. It's hard to say. I'm probably more acculturated to 24 hour news coverage in a foreign country than I am in America, and I assume that a lot of this goes on in the States, too, but what you see in the 24 hour, minute-by-minute news cycle is that there's a lot of bad information that initially gets out. Then, as the story develops, that gets corrected.

Matthew Felling: In the coverage of the first car, the one that was emitting smoke, you chalked it up to the environment of "vigilance" in England. Is there a greater sense of that in Great Britain?

Richard Roth: I don't know that it's any different anywhere else. I've spent a lot of time in Israel and I'd say that vigilance is more heightened there than anyplace I've worked. It's reasonably high here [in England], but when I first arrived here I remember noticing all the posters that warned people to be alert for suspicious packages – this was when there were Irish Republican Army bombs going off. There was a renewal of that climate after September 11th and there was a big renewal of it after July 7th, 2005 when there were the bombings on the transit system here. Then time passes, and people get relaxed.

I get the feeling that with this thing [last] Thursday night, there must have been a lot of vapor coming off the gasoline and the ambulance drivers couldn't help but notice it. I used the word 'vigilance' and I used it counterpoised with the word 'intelligence' and there was a rhetorical technique there, but I felt it was also truth. As for your question, I don't know that this society as a whole is any more especially alert with their antennae twitching for danger in the air. We all have that to some extent, don't we?

Matthew Felling: What do you see in the transition from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown, in terms of media coverage and access? Is Brown going to be a good story to cover?

Richard Roth: One of the reasons that Tony Blair was such a good story to cover was his relationship with America. But the relationship between America and Gordon Brown is, inevitably, going to be different. I can't imagine that he's going to want to have the same kind of affect in terms of his relationship with President Bush.

Quite frankly, the British political story has never been a great story for American television, so I'm a little uncertain about how that's going to change. I don't think that anyone predicts that Brown is going to do something immediate and dramatic about British participation in the war in Iraq. Beyond that, what can he do that's going to make a compelling story for an American audience – particularly on network television, where time is such a precious commodity. Gordon's not as telegenic as Blair. He's not as good a speaker.

Matthew Felling: What did you make of Blair as a speaker, particularly since we in America kept seeing him compared to Bush?

Richard Roth: They didn't hear in the same way. And you have to understand that any politician that rises to the top in Britain has a remarkable and profound command of public speaking. A big part of the prime minister's job is to be a commanding speaker in Parliament, to be able to debate successfully, to have a command of the facts at his fingertips once a week when Prime Minister's question time is on in Parliament. A Prime Minister needs to have a good public sense of humor, and a sense of sarcasm and to be articulate.

When a politician here doesn't speak in complete sentences, some columnist will criticize him for doing that.

Matthew Felling: Do you feel you got more information from Tony Blair than American reporters get from President Bush, or was it more a matter of style?

Richard Roth: Well, the style is very different. And under Blair, the management of the journalism was more or less as effective as Bush's is in America – they got their point of view out, they courted journalists, they shunned those that they felt were unfavorable to them. I think there are great similarities. Great political institutions with smart people with a commitment to their agenda have ways of controlling the press.