Where there's smoke there's pressure

VIEW FROM NEW YORK: Fear of the tobacco industry has led the mighty CBS network to censor itself

We are ensconced in one of our favourite lunchtime eateries in Manhattan this weekend when a man with a worried look settles in a booth just a couple away from our own. He talks in grumbling tones to his companion, rarely lifting his eyes from the table. He is Dan Rather, the veteran newsreader at CBS.

Of course, it may be the grey weather that is weighing on Mr Rather's mood. It is a good bet, however, that he is pondering work matters - the pending takeover of CBS by Westinghouse Corporation, or perhaps last week's brouhaha over revelations of self-censorship at 60 Minutes, his network's flagship current affairs show. Or, indeed, a combination of both.

What happened at 60 Minutes, a Sunday-night fixture, rattled the rafters not just of CBS but of the whole industry. Under pressure from network lawyers, the producers emasculated a planned story on efforts by the tobacco industry to suppress the results of its own research into nicotine and cancer by yanking an interview with a former employee of a large tobacco company - Brown & Williamson, a subsidiary of British American Tobacco - for fear that it would provoke a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit.

The legal department at CBS was especially concerned that the interviewee had signed a confidentiality agreement with B&W on leaving the company and was in effect being invited to breach it on air. In theory, B&W could have accused CBS of so-called "tortious interference" and hit it with a very hefty lawsuit indeed. In the mid-1980s, Texaco was sued for tortious interference for trying to break up the merger of the Pennzoil Company and Getty Oil and was forced to pay $10.5bn in damages. The episode pushed Texaco into bankruptcy protection in 1987. CBS evidently took fright.

But the journalistic uproar was instant. It did not help that this was 60 Minutes, the very bastion of no-fear, no-favour television journalism. It also tweaked unusually raw nerves because it was the tobacco industry that was involved. While from some angles the cigarette-makers seem to be on the run from journalists and the US government - the Food and Drug Administration is considering classifying tobacco as an addictive drug - they still wield awesome power. Power to sway politicans - the industry is the biggest contributor to the Republican Party - and also to cow television networks.

Editorialists, columnists and commentators expounded widely on the crisis of the corrosion of free expression in the press. "This act of self-censorship by the country's most powerful and aggressive television news programme sends a chilling message to journalists investigating industry practices everywhere," boomed the New York Times. Among journalists at CBS who joined in the chorus was Mr Rather, who argued that whatever the cost to his employer of a lawsuit from B&W, "it wouldn't cost as much as it's going to cost us if we get a reputation for folding every time somebody threatens us".

Most poignant was the display of embarrassment and chagrin on 60 Minutes itself when the neutered version of the tobacco story was aired two Sundays ago. In what he called a "personal note" at the end of the programme, the veteran reporter Mike Wallace bitterly explained that CBS had, "seen fit to give in to perceived threats of legal action against it". He later said on radio that he would resign if the same thing were to happen again.

Then there is the Westinghouse factor. Cynics might wonder at the coincidence of timing between the broadcast date of the show in question on 12 November and the meeting of CBS shareholders that was scheduled for just four days later to approve Westinghouse's $5.4bn takeover offer for the network. It is not inconceivable that CBS managers were unwilling to risk a big lawsuit at the very moment when the Westinghouse takeover was so close to consummation, especially when you consider that many among them stand to make huge profits from the buyout.

The scenario is more convincing still if you know of a similar saga that recently beset CBS's rival, ABC. A year and a half ago, Philip Morris, home of the Marlboro Man, walloped ABC with a $10bn suit - the biggest libel action in history - after one of its current affairs programmes, Day One, which has since been axed, alleged that the company had been deliberately spiking its cigarettes with nicotine to raise addiction levels among its smokers. ABC did nothing for 18 months, until, lo and behold, in August this year it settled out of court, paying Morris a reported $15m to cover legal fees. And what else happened to ABC at about that time? It, like CBS, also proposed climbing into someone else's bed - Walt Disney's.

Some easy conclusions can be drawn. For one, the tobacco industry, for all the battering it has been taking of late, is still a power to be reckoned with. For another, in this country certainly, lawyers are on the up escalator in the news business while journalists appear to be riding down, taking the First Amendment of the American Constitution with them. Another is less certain, but perhaps more worrying still. As industrial combines gradually become the masters of all media outlets - remember that NBC, the other network, is already controlled by General Electric - so corporate concerns of profit and protection against risk take over from journalistic principles.

This is the fear expressed by Frank Rich of the New York Times. "If this is how cautiously ABC and CBS are behaving before they are swallowed by Disney and Westinghouse, what will happen to these networks' news divisions after the sales are completed and they are owned by even larger corporate behemoths? If bottomless corporate coffers can buy off elected officials and scare off news organisations as huge as CBS, who will defend the public interest?"

No wonder Mr Rather seemed to be looking at his omelette askance.

David Usborne

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Guru Careers: Tax Manager / Accountant

£35 - £50k DOE: Guru Careers: A Tax Manager / Accountant (ACA / CA / CTA) is n...

Ashdown Group: Contracts Executive - City of London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Contracts Executive - Cit...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: SThree Group have been well esta...

Recruitment Genius: Call Centre Debt Collector - Multiple Roles

£21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
10 best sun creams for kids

10 best sun creams for kids

Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

Tate Sensorium

New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

Remember Ashton Agar?

The No 11 that nearly toppled England
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks