Media: If it matters, she's there

Her potential audience of 500 million includes many of the world's most powerful leaders. On Thursday, they will watch her shadowing Tony Blair. Emma Daly talks to CNN's Christiane Amanpour

John Major may think there's everything to play for, but CNN, the global news channel, is sure it's done and dusted. Proof? They have arranged for Christiane Amanpour to spend her Thursday night at Tony Blair's headquarters, from where she will introduce him to her potential audience of 500 million people.

She is CNN's biggest gun, its very public weapon, sent to cover the biggest and most dangerous stories. And because the station is broadcast to 184 million households in 210 countries and territories, Amanpour, half-English, half-Iranian, born in Britain, is the most recognised reporter on the planet, and its highest-paid.

There are no statistics about how many watch CNN, though "international news", a concept of minimal interest to Americans and not hugely popular with Brits, goes down a lot better with foreigners, especially those living under repressive or censorious regimes. But it is a fair bet that many millions will catch their first glimpse of a victorious - or suicidal - Mr Blair on CNN. And we can expect the White House to learn the result from CNN, for the audience includes a disproportionate share of movers and shakers. The station operates as official wallpaper in Washington and numerous other capitals, making Amanpour well-known to the world's leaders. (This can be irritating for her colleagues: I have been in press packs where the visiting dignitary ignores everyone else and homes in on Amanpour, to a soundtrack of mass tooth-grinding.) In 1994, Alain Juppe, then the French foreign minister, recognised Amanpour at a press conference and came over to shake her hand; she has also dined at the White House, despite (or perhaps because of) a live television spat with Bill Clinton, whom she accused of "flip-flopping" over Bosnia.

CNN blows the Amanpour trumpet with a vengeance. "I wanted to make a statement about how seriously we take the story, and I can't see a better way of making a serious statement than playing your aces high," says Chris Cramer, the former BBC news supremo who runs CNN International, the channel broadcast outside the United States. "This story is important not just for our UK audience, and not just for our European audience but our international audience, and important means Christiane."

When I told her this over dinner, she practically choked on her watercress salad. She emphasises and re-emphasises the fact that CNN has a huge team working the election, and pointing out that Richard Blystone, the senior correspondent in the UK, will be anchoring the election special. She suggests that I interview him about CNN's coverage. But in the end, she accepts Cramer's point: that although she is best-known as a war reporter, for Bosnia, the Gulf, Somalia and Rwanda, as the station's chief international correspondent, she does indeed cover the big stories, those with "the possibility of changing the political atmosphere". These include the most recent elections in Russia, Israel and Bosnia, for example.

She has also been drafted in for her unquestioned ability to speak coherently into the void - or, as it is formally known, to file a live report. Some critics complain of garbled syntax, but at least Amanour never leaves a vacuum, and normally sounds intelligent and coherent.

Her assignment in the UK is to follow the Labour party on election night and the comings and goings at Number 10 the next day. This assumes that Labour will grant Amanpour a decent spot on the night - the party refuses to say anything about the Leader's movements or about access to him, but is keen to portray its "openness" to foreign media.

CNN's only global rival, BBC World, the televisual arm of the World Service, will run its own election special, anchored by Tim Sebastian and tailored for an international audience. CNN's domestic channel will provide the bulk of British election coverage available in the United States. The other US networks have a half-hour show a night, CNN has 24 hours.

In contrast to the hordes of British crews flown to the US for a presidential election, ABC, NBC and CBS are making do with reports from their London bureaux. American viewers are likely to see perhaps three or four pieces in total - one or two during the campaign, and one or two around election night. But the country's print media has taken an unusual interest in the vote. Maureen Dowd, a commentator with the New York Times, has for the first time chosen to write on a British election, to observe "the man would be Prime Minister pulling off an unusual trick, cloning himself from a clone ... At least we Americans have the original opportunist".

Amanpour, who is entitled to vote but is not registered - she has lived abroad for many years, but is considering a permanent move to London - declines to give an opinion on the candidates. She is not a specialist on the British political scene (despite being described by The Mirror as "an Essex girl" because her school, New Hall, is in the county), but she feels confident of her ability to pick up the ball on election night. The vote "is really important, it has great implications, it's really interesting, it can be dramatic but it's a story, and any reporter knows how to cover a story", she says. "It's not brain surgery."

Dowd emphasises Amanpour's credentials as a commentator of the American political scene rather than an expert surveyor of the British version. "Americans are particularly interested because there have been so many comparisons of Tony Blair to Clinton, and because so many of his staff worked on the Clinton campaign," she explains.

There is a similar tale in France, which is running an election of its own. The French and German press have covered the campaign extensively, probing the extent of Britain's "economic miracle" and its general hipness. But again, the story is not as popular with broadcasters, although France Deux, the higher-brow French station, is planning a 20-minute election special just after the polls close. Officials in Bonn, however, are likely to have at least one eye on CNN during the election.

So far this year, Amanpour has worked in Israel, Bulgaria, South Africa, Sierra Leone, Zaire and Bosnia. Her next assignment, which will take her back to her other roots, is to cover the Iranian presidential election, in May. In reporting on the campaign, she may actually have the chance to do what she is best at: going out and asking the punters what they think and feel.

What she would really like to do in the UK is interview the wives: it would be fascinating to know what Norma and Cherie are thinking. But her main concern, scarred and enlightened as she is by her experience of the war in Bosnia, is how the election result will affect foreign policy in the post-cold war world, how it will address the "small but potentially devastating fires" breaking out. "In a way, our world was a much safer place during the past 50 years, because people knew who was who. Now there are no parameters ... well, very few." She fears that the West has not learnt its lesson in Bosnia: "The danger is that others will be tempted to change borders by aggression, and to commit genocide with impunity."

Amanpour conveyed the pity and the evil of such a war, and was one of those reporters - dismissed as the "do-something brigade" - who made the British position of neutrality in the conflict seem wrong, if not wicked.

It is claimed, in one press profile, that correspondents are given to chanting: "Where there's war, there's Amanpour". But that is clearly wrong. If it were true, she'd be covering the Conservative Partyn

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