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UN Covers Up Wasted TV Money, Gags Staff and Asks, "Are You with the Heritage Foundation?"

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, May 8-- Over the course of many months and in stages, the UN bought six high-definition video cameras, but allowed them to sit unused in the basement gathering dust. They forgot to buy the lens, then bought the wrong parts. In any event, the UN Headquarters building is not wire to work with these cameras, and the signal had to be converted down to analog due to the lack of a digital switcher. There are no current plans to buy a digital switcher, at least until the several-year renovation of the UN building, and in the renovation plan, no money has yet been sought from the General Assembly for the new broadcast facility.

Whistleblowers told Inner City Press about the cameras, and this and other "wasted money," as they put it. Inner City Press sent e-mail questions on the matter, perfectly willing to have the allegations turn out to be false or over-stated. But the head of UN TV, Susan Farkas, rather than simply answer the questions, demanded a sit-down meeting, which took place on April 30 for slightly more than an hour. Along with admitting the delays with the cameras, "Do you work for the Heritage Foundation?" she asked Inner City Press, referring to a conservative think-tank in Washington which has been critical of UN waste, fraud and abuse. (The phrase appears in one of its reports.)

As exemplified by Ms. Farkas, there is a tendency at the higher levels of the UN to reflexively characterize any questioning, particularly about consistency or accountability, as being part of some vast right-wing conspiracy. Sometimes those making this accusation actually believe it.

BAN Ki-moon at UNTV, Ms. Farkas and Heritage Foundation not shown (but see below)

But after Ms. Farkas was told that no, Inner City Press does not "work for the Heritage Foundation" (although what a left-leaning pro-whistleblower think tank the Government Accountability Project called the UN's attempts to disaccredit and censor Inner City Press from Google News were discussed there earlier this year), Ms. Farkas continued to try to convince those under her control in UN TV of some Inner City Press - Heritage Foundation connection.

An e-mail was circulated on May 1, the day after Ms. Farkas' statements transcribed below, in which UN TV staff were told, if they are asked by the press for any statistics or other information, to decline to provide it and to tell Ms. Farkas and the head of their unit. It's worth noting that UN TV is part of the UN's Department of Public Information, and that on May 1, while the UN was ostensibly celebrating World Press Freedom Day, within DPI a move was afoot to prohibit the provision to the press of even basic factual information. Click here to view the e-mail.

The statistics Inner City Press had asked for were the viewership numbers for World Chronicle, the UN TV show which was jettisoned in favor of Ms. Farkas' show, 21st Century. World Chronicle was able to cover such issues as Oil for Food and instances of abuse by peacekeepers, while 21st Century in 17 episodes has yet to mention either. Ms. Farkas' written response had been that World Chronicle had a "miniscule" viewership; on April 30, she said she had considered existing UN personnel, but decided she wanted "someone with more energy."

She chose Daljit Dahliwal. Asked how she selected her, Ms. Farkas said she ran into her at a cocktail party and decided she was the one.  21st Century writer Ms. Andi Gitow, Farkas knew from a previous job. She brought Ms. Gitow in, without competition, "against an empty post," as she put it. From there, Ms. Gitow's status was regularized. But no, Farkas claimed, there was no favoritism, all the hiring rules were followed.

Ms. Farkas known well beyond her own unit --including due to her unique status in the UN's e-mail system. Under the protocol, she was assigned the e-mailed address, and had business cards printed up. Not liking the name, she got it changed to susan.farkas at  "The only person in the Secretariat with an email address with a dot in it," one staffer said.

A fundamental question is whether it is the UN Department of Public Information's role to provide answers and information requested by the independent press, or to produce its own shows, in this case not clearly labeled as being UN products, under-reporting or omitting entirely any controversies or critiques which might, in fact, lead to improvements at the UN.

Ms. Farkas comes down for the second approach. I am not a journalist, she told Inner City Press. The UN pays us. We are not going to look into scandals of the UN. In an e-mail to Inner City Press before she demanded the meeting, she claimed her show 21st Century is "accurate and balanced" -- but at the April 30 meeting, she admitted that it is not journalism, and cannot or will not cover or even mention whole sides of the UN's activities.

The response to these inquiries was not only the written instruction to staff to not provide even statistics to the press -- the wasted money on the cameras was compounded in the course of the attempted cover-up or lock-down of information. Expensive headsets to use with the cameras had been bought, and were quickly dusted off once questions about the cameras' disuse arose. But they were the incorrect headsets. Rather than return and exchange them for the correct ones, staffers were ordered to cut the wires and splice on new outlets, thereby taking the equipment out of warranty.

 "It was absurd," sources told Inner City Press, requesting anonymity in light of what they called Ms. Farkas' and the UN's predilection to retaliate against whistleblowers. "They wasted more money trying to evade your questions about their previous waste, then they told us to lie to you about it."  And so it goes at the UN.

Susan Farkas, in UN portrait

  And here's how it went:

Susan Farkas: Before we start, let me just ask you a few questions.

Inner City Press: Go ahead, no problem.

Farkas: It's hard to tell from your questions what sort of you're really after... This thing about that you didn't get answers.  If you read on, you'll see that I offered to meet with you. I said to you before, let's meet in person.  I think that's reasonable.

Inner City Press: What may be unreasonable is the way the Spokesman's office played it is that the question was really directed to them.  And they're in the business, or should be, I think, of providing answers.  They're not supposed to provide roadblocks to answers. 

Farkas: They're not expected to know this level of detail that you're asking for. And so they'd have to come to me to research it. 

Inner City Press: Some things are just yes or no, like how much money.  I think that they can answer it, and they shouldn't require you.  I feel like journalistically, I shouldn't be required to say, well set up an appointment with my secretary, and then you'll get the answers. It's just a straight question.

Farkas: It took some research to get to the answers.  I want to double check things before I send them. Alright, so now let's talk about the show.  I find it astonishing that you think there's a story in the fact that we don't investigate the UN.  That we don't do negative stories about the UN on "21st Century."... The UN pays us.  The UN pays us to produce a program which promotes the issues that the UN cares about.   And that's what we have done with "21st Century."  The program's mandate is not to investigate the UN.  Now when I say 'fair and balanced' I mean that if we have a story about a rape, we are going to get the victim, we're gonna try to get the perpetrator, we're gonna try to get people who can give us answers in that.  It's not really relevant to say, and, by the way, there have been other rapes by UN peacekeepers.  It was relevant, when we reported on Rwanda to say that the entire international community left Rwanda, and that included the peacekeepers, and that's where… we include negative material only when its very… when its relevant.  We don't investigate.  We are a UN body.  I think it would be more of a scandal, frankly.

Inner City Press: My question is -- it goes back to this word 'fair and balanced' -- for example, in covering the issue of rape in Haiti, how is it not relevant?

Farkas: Because we were talking about a specific girl, and her incident, and the specific laws that had been changed, and how she's affected by it.

Inner City Press: It seems like you were saying that World Chronicle had a miniscule audience, and this has a much more serious audience.  What were the numbers for that?

Farkas: We had 20 stations… for World Chronicle.  That was a panel show where we had journalists asking tough questions.   For "21st Century" we have 54 broadcasters in 33 countries, including BBC World.  And as to your question as to why isn't the UN plastered all over it, people won't air it.  People don't want an institution carrying a show about an institution.  But if we cover stories about issues, and we work in UN angles to almost every story, either a reference to a treaty or a reference to a decision, or a UN official who is interviewed, or you see a shot of the World Food Program in the background, whatever it is.  Not every story, but I'd say many stories, the UN angle is clear.

Inner City Press: Do you know when they actually broadcast it?  Somebody raised to me that when the thing is actually broadcasting, at the front there is no mention of the UN.  You could watch it all the way to the end…

Farkas: Don't you think it is up to the broadcasters to decide how they are going to deal with the disclosure issue?  It is what it is.  It is a disclosure issue.  To say, this is a program that is produced by the UN. 

Inner City Press: Do you remember when the White House was funding talk show hosts…

Farkas: Same thing, they get mail from us, you'll see the DVD package, it has "UN" all over it…

Inner City Press: But to the viewer, can you understand that if a viewer watched the show, and particularly if the broadcaster cut off the credits, which they're free to do, and in some cases do do, they would be watching a show that's actually produced by the UN…

Farkas: These programs are created to fit certain time slots.  Yes, of course they can do it.  Matthew, we send our material out free.  We send a lot of material out.  We send the "UN in action" out, UNIFEED, and "21st Century".  The fact is that we lose control as soon as it leaves here… we have agreed written agreements where we ask the people to air the show regularly, air the show in a good timeslot, give us feedback, and that's the best we can do… I can't be responsible if someone takes a shot from that and puts it to some nefarious use.  It's just a fact of life.  If we put a big "UN" logo on it, or a bug as we call it…

Inner City Press: It's not so much that is nefarious.  I just go back to the question of if a viewer watches a show, and at the end of it is unaware that it was produced by an organization…

Farkas: The responsibility, I maintain, lies with the broadcaster.  As for what my mandate is, people have sat there and watched shows on HIV and rape.  Peace issues, environmental issues.  All these MDG related stories.  Then I have done my job.  I have raised consciousness.  People have understood these stories in a slightly different way.  That's what we are tasked with doing, is giving attention to the issues that are high on the UN agenda.  And everyone of those stories fits into the agenda so far. 

Inner City Press: So if the idea is somehow promoting the UN, there are some who would say that …

Farkas: That's what I'm saying, it's not our responsibility.  You have to look at the journalists, the broadcasters, to see how they want to disclose that it's a UN product.

Inner City Press: What was the idea behind hiring an outside narrator that people would probably associate with an independent media outlet?

Farkas: We don't have anybody here who can do it. We don't have any on-air staff.  We have nobody who has on-air experience in TV.  We don't. 

Inner City Press: Were some of the shows in the first season reshot?

Farkas: Yes. The BBC series was a totally new series.  They needed a different length.  You know, we had the first year.  And they wanted a weekly series.  And we didn't have the product.  We had twelve shows.  They wanted a ten-week series starting in January.  So we had to recut some of them, we had to rewrite some of them, things had changed, there had to be new intros, it had to be a different length. And so, all the BBC shows were reshot.  And she was paid, of course

Inner City Press: For both times?  For the first time, and the second time?

Farkas: They are different shows!  … The first twelve are the first cut, and then we did a separate tapings for the BBC series.

Inner City Press: And those, you don't put online?

Farkas: No.  Those were on the BBC, and are different shows. 

Inner City Press: Gotcha, gotcha.  In one of the credits, it said "adaption" for 21st Century…

Farkas: We don't have the budget to have the number of producers we would need to produce all our own material, so we take material from all UN agencies… it started off that we had a lot of IRIN pieces, we had pieces that had already been used, or had been produced in the UN system.  And we adapted them.  Plus, there's a certain style of story-telling that we wanted, and so we rearranged some of them; we edited them down.  So that's what we mean by adaptation.  You saw Rockhopper; Rockhopper was paid by another agency.  I can't remember which one.  And they wanted some credit for that.  And we have one coming up now from WIPO, of all people. 

Inner City Press: They want to get paid?

Farkas: No, no, no… they DON'T want to get paid.  There will be a production credit saying that they paid.  We haven't paid anybody.  We have had a couple of freelancers.  We had this guy who was against a post.  You know how that works? 

Inner City Press: I think I do but I'd rather have you say how.

Farkas: We were recruiting someone, and while we were waiting for her to arrive, you can use a vacant post to hire someone, while you have the vacancy.  So we did; we needed someone, and so Francis is a producer, and so we hired him to work here; he produced those pieces.  So that was basically the deal on that. 

Inner City Press: And there was also one called J.D…

Farkas: That was a group we worked with in Israel.  That was the show where we.. I think it's the Jewish.. they were here yesterday… the Jewish Development Center… actually it's the Joint Development Center… and they gave us some help finding those kids... They give us a little production money.

Inner City Press: While we're on this money topic; the venture to Cannes… I just want to ask. 

Farkas: Let me ask you a question.  If this meeting were in Warsaw, would this be a question?

Inner City Press: I think so. 

Farkas: You wouldn't call it a junket. 

Inner City Press: I don't think we used the word junket.

Farkas: Let me tell you, I worked so damn hard at that meeting; I wish you could have been there to see it.  Its not that much fun.  I didn't go for two years.  And you asked about the cost.  Now that I didn't get.  I told you, last year Carolyn went by herself; this year two of us went.  The cost: there's a booth that all the UN agencies chip in on; it's all shared.  There were ten partners this year.  What do you want me to do?  Dig out; figure out the expenses?  The DSA is public record.  What's the difference?  I'm telling you, who went.  Do you really need to know exact dollar figures?  My DSA?  Plus airfare?

Inner City Press: You were saying its impossible to get a post.  An overarching thing is, there seems to have been a change in strategy.  Would it be fair to say that when you came in, they had this moribund , seven country round-table show, and you had this other idea.

Farkas: Well, what happened is that we did a survey, and I saw the numbers, and I noticed for instance that the numbers in the survey weren't right.  So I picked up the phone, and I called CNBC World, and said what is your audience?  They said their audience is in the tens of thousands.  So, as I looked at the list --  and there were cable broadcasters, cable channels, I reexamined it.  And the fact that it is unilingual is a big drawback.  Our job is to serve the world.  So I didn't feel that doing a show for some small cable stations was achieving the reach that we could reach. 

Inner City Press: When the shift was made... you’re saying...

Farkas:  We decided we should find someone a little more lively... I ran into Daljit at a BBC party and had a chat with her.

Inner City Press: There are some, even that work here in the building, who say maybe it's a great show, but what does the UN get out of it?  Why not make the interface with independent, outside broadcasters easier, let them make their own show?

Farkas: Our mandate is to promote issues that are UN priority issues.... It's not up to the UN to uncover scandal at the UN. That's not our mandate. Maybe if you want to call it self-censorship. I mean, we are UN employees.... Indigenous rights in Bolivia, we talk about the rights of the indigenous, we show the UN.

Inner City Press: Do you include... Evo Morales was here, he held a press conference, I covered it, and he was critical of the UN International Narcotics Control Board for trying to block the use of coca leaf... Or the DRC, or East Timor, did the UN pull out too fast --

Farkas: We haven't done it yet.

Inner City Press: Kosovo?

Farkas: It's so bloody complicated.. and it's not a visual story. It's a magazine show. And as you see I have been successful.(Gesturing at trophies). There's one more. You should be congratulating us.

Inner City Press: A special UN radio for the UN market?

Farkas: We have a lot of member sates, and the U.S. is probably the most important... The two P-2s are paid by the UN Foundation...

Inner City Press: How did the idea come about?

Farkas: The head of the UN foundation and I cooked it up in this room.

Inner City Press: Tim Wirth?

Farkas: Kathy.  We have a problem here.. a lot of stations were not even covering us.  There was Oil for Food,  a combination of a conservative administration and a conservative media, they weren't even covering us.

Inner City Press: What's the policy of the show, in terms of showing dead bodies?

Farkas: We showed cadavers in Guatemala We weren't trying infer something from bags on their hands. You were implying it , right here... you didn't wait for the answer.

Farkas: Can I ask you a question?   Let me ask you this straight out... You don't get paid by the Heritage Foundation? You seem determined to throw things at the wall, I can't help but think it's ideological. I'm not the only one who thinks that. I'm sure you're aware of that.

Inner City Press: I think there are two separate beats here. The Security Council, they think quite the opposite [of Inner City Press' approach]. But with the UN, they think anything that's critical is a right wing attack.

Inner City Press: Okay then, big picture... There was a policy switch, it seems to go back to Shashi [Tharoor]... was the switch ever presented to the Fifth Committee or the Committee on Information?

Farkas: Shashi has ongoing conversations with people. Ultimately there's no secrets from the member states.

  Well, there shouldn't be...

Farkas: By the way, it's BCSS that handles the audio in the Committee on Information.

(a Broadcasting and Conference Support Section staffer is said to be preparing to moonlight at the Beijing Olympics).

Farkas: So do you have enough to write? What's the story?

Inner City Press: Decision were made, who made them, a process story, how this important world organization makes its decisions, how it operates.

And this is a piece of how it operates.  To be continued

* * *

These reports are usually also available through Google News and on Lexis-Nexis.

Click here for a Reuters AlertNet piece by this correspondent about Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army. Click here for an earlier Reuters AlertNet piece about the Somali National Reconciliation Congress, and the UN's $200,000 contribution from an undefined trust fund.  Video Analysis here

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