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Text of the Mobil Oil ad that appeared in The New York Times on Thursday, May 8, 1980, two days before the broadcast of "Death of a Princess."

[copy of the mobil ad]

A New Fairy Tale

On May 12, a number of Public Broadcasting Service stations are scheduled to show a television film which purports to depict certain events and practices in Saudi Arabia. When this film was aired several weeks ago in Britain, it caused Saudi Arabia to express its objections to the British Government. In Saudi Arabia's view, the film misrepresented its social, religious, and judicial systems and, in effect, was insulting to an entire people and the heritage of Islam.

As a consequence, the following transpired:

  • According to The New York Times, the British Foreign Secretary sent a letter to Prince Saud Al-Faisal, the Saudi Foreign Minister, expressing his "profound regret."

  • The Times also reported that the British Foreign Office issued the following statement: "It is most unfortunate that Anglo-Saudi relations should have been damaged by a film for which the British Government was in no way responsible and which it could not prevent from being shown on British television or elsewhere. We hope it will be possible to restore relations on their normal level as soon as possible."

In our opinion, the proposed showing of this film on public television in the United States raises some very serious issues:

  1. If we are going to have a free press, what responsibilities and obligations to the well-being of the nation does that freedom impose upon television stations and other media?

  1. What are the implications of the fact that congressional appropriations to public television supported, at least indirectly, the production of the film and, if shown, the facilities for dissemination?

  1. Does the public regard fictionalized or "docu-drama" accounts loosely based on some historical event as accurate portrayals of those events, even though fiction is mixed with so-called fact? Many serious commentators have raised questions about the "docu-drama" format.

We believe that if a free society is to survive, we must openly and candidly discuss these issues so that an informed public may make rational judgments.

1. Obligations of a Free Press

We all know that in the U.S., our Constitution guarantees a free and unfettered press. However, implicit in that guarantee is the obligation on the part of the press to be responsible. Clearly, the people of the U.S. have the right to expect that the media will not abuse its privilege. The public will have to decide whether a "free press" is acting responsibly if it presents a fictionalized story of "events" and thereby demeans another nation's religion and possibly jeopardizes U.S. relations with that nation.

2. The Role of Government Support

Here we have a curious contradiction. Congressional appropriations have indirectly made possible the television structure which helped produce and will disseminate the show. We are not suggesting that congressional grants to public television should contain substantive restrictions nor are we suggesting our government in any way is responsible for the film. We know, however, that other nations may not understand how one branch of the government may deplore or regret a film offensive to a friendly country while another unwittingly supports it financially.

3. The "Reality" of Docu-Drama

It should be understood that this film is not a news documentary. Rather, it is a drama using actors whose roles and dialogue have been scripted by a writer and, both in terms of visual portrayal and dialogue, must be classified as fiction. Yet, the claim will be that it is a factual presentation of a series of events. In this case, we are not dealing with the rights of a free press to express its views. Rather, we are dealing with a controversial film which most of the viewing audience will take as fact and thereby reach incorrect conclusions. Many television reviewers have raised serious doubts about this type of television which so blurs the distinction between fact and fiction that the viewer doesn't know one from the other.

This issue was discussed in a letter to The New Statesman by Penelope Mortimer who worked with Antony Thomas, the show's producer: "I was involved with the project for almost a year and present at most of the interviews. I accompanied Thomas on his ten-day trip to Saudi Arabia and was with him in Beirut in September 1978. With the exception of Barry Millner, who had already sold his story to the Daily Express, Rosemary Buschow, and the Palestinian family in Beirut, every interview and every character in the film is fabricated. The "revelation" of the domestic lives of the Saudi princesses -- man-hunting in the desert, rendezvous in boutiques -- was taken entirely on the evidence of an expatriate divorcée, as was the story of the princess first seeing her lover on Saudi television. No real effort was made to check up on such information. Rumour and opinion somehow came to be presented as fact … the audience, foolishly believing it to be authentic, is conned."

That is why we say the show is a new fairy tale.

4. Conclusion

We hope that the management of the Public Broadcasting Service will review its decision to run this film and exercise responsible judgment in the light of what is in the best interest of the United States.

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posted april 19, 2005

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