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"the 'death of a princess' controversy" by Thomas White and Gladys Ganley
This Harvard University-sponsored research paper was published in 1983, three years after the film's broadcast. Its authors examine how the furor over the film illuminated the world's growing economic interdependence as well as the impact of new media and information technologies on global culture and politics. This excerpt from the paper provides an overview of how the "Princess" controversy played out over the weeks leading up to the film's broadcast.

From "The 'Death of a Princess' Controversy" by Thomas White and Gladys Ganley, Copyright © 1983. This excerpt is reprinted here by permission of the Program on Information Resources Policy (PIRP), Harvard University. Read a PDF version of the full research paper.

The Opening Guns

The film was perceived by Saudis as a violation of privacy since it represented a first look behind a closely drawn curtain into Islamic law as applied in Saudi Arabia, into Saudi culture, and, perhaps most devastating, into the behavior of members of the ruling regime.

In autumn 1977, British filmmaker Anthony [sic] Thomas heard talk of the princess story at a London dinner party. On July 15 of that year, 19-year old Princess Mish'al [sic], a great niece of the Saudi king, and her 20-year-old lover, the son of a senior Saudi general, had been publicly executed in Saudi Arabia. They had committed adultery, a capital offense under Islamic law1. The execution had originally escaped notice in the west, but, nearly six months after the event, the victims were identified. Then: "... the story escalated into international headlines about 'the Princess who died for love'."

Although the story was suppressed in Arab countries, it was widely circulated there by word of mouth. An Arab storyteller in the film:

... described the princess as having changed while attending college in Beirut. Exposed to radical politics, the Palestinians, women's liberation and assorted Western influences, she rebelled against her country's traditional ways, going so far as to reject the royal cousin who had been chosen as her husband-to-be. Accused of adultery with a young man from Beirut, she publicly confessed her sin, even while the king was begging her to reconsider. The Arab storyteller saw the princess as a symbol for the "whole Arab predicament: How much of our past must we abandon? How much of your present is worth imitating."

Intrigued by the story of the princess, Thomas convinced producers at England's Associated Television Corporation (ATV) and WGBH (Boston's public television station) to permit him to make the film. In this truly international enterprise, Mr. Thomas raised £100,000 from Associated Television Corporation, and additional monies from television companies in Holland, the U.S., Japan, Australia and New Zealand. WGBH of Boston, a member of PBS is said to have furnished at least one quarter of a required $430,000. The film was aired first in Great Britain and then presented as a special in the PBS "World" series, with other countries buying rights to show it from Telepictures, Inc.

During the next several months, Thomas is said to have conducted dozens of interviews with Saudis who claimed they had either witnessed or known of the execution. The program was produced jointly by WGBH Educational Foundation, a licensee of WGBH-TV, and by ATV Ltd. in London. David Fanning of WGBH, the executive producer of "World," co-authored the script with Anthony Thomas, and Thomas served as the film's director. Within a year and a half, "Death of a Princess" was ready to be shown.

The Saudi government had known for some time that the British were preparing to televise a film of unprecedented candor about life in Saudi Arabia. Before the film was publicly aired, several Saudi officials watched a private London screening and were deeply offended by it. The British government was informed that King Khalid was enraged by reports of the film's content. Informally, Saudi Arabia threatened to break off diplomatic relations and to suspend exports of oil to England. One account claims the Saudis offered more than $10 million to purchase the film outright to keep it from being shown. This was flatly denied by the Saudi Embassy in London, but people involved with the film indicated that some offer of payment had indeed been made.

Prior to the first showing of "Death of a Princess" in Britain on April 9, 1980, the Saudis applied a series of real and perceived pressures in an effort to halt its being shown. These caused repercussions in multiple countries which continued over the next several weeks.

What Offended the Saudis

Columbia University professor Edward Said argues in Covering Islam that the Muslim world has long resisted the probing eyes of the west. And, despite its ascension to power, Saudi Arabia had until this controversy been particularly successful in avoiding the scrutiny of the press. The film was perceived by Saudis as a violation of privacy since it represented a first look behind a closely drawn curtain into Islamic law as applied in Saudi Arabia, into Saudi culture, and, perhaps most devastating, into the behavior of members of the ruling regime.

While damning the film, the Saudi royal family never denied that the actual execution of the princess and her lover took place. Prince Sultan, a brother of the then and the present king, is reported by BBC to have said:

... that the Kingdom had the honor to implement the Islamic Shari'a, (the divine law) without complaisance or distinction, between the ruler and the subject. HRH (His Royal Highness) said he was proud of this criticism because "we applied the Islamic Shari'a with justice and justice must apply to all."

But Prince Sultan also said that the aim of the film was to insult Islam. Much of Saudi criticism of the film was directed towards what was called its portrayal of Islam as a harsh, insensitive religion, since the princess was depicted as having been summarily executed without a confession or a trial. The severity of punishment and the speed with which the princess was executed put doubts in the minds of viewers as to the fairness of Koranic justice. Summary execution is not the norm in Saudi Arabia. Only about a dozen Saudis are executed annually and then only after a trial before a body of Ulema, Islamic judges.

But there are those who say that the Saudis were really offended because:

... the film suggested that Prince Mohammed, the oldest surviving son of the Kingdom's founder, had done his granddaughter to death on charges of adultery which were not exposed to the rigours of an Islamic court, and it was a matter of rough family justice. In Saudi Arabia, there are many customary or imported laws, but the Constitutional Law of 1926 requires these be compatible with the Shari'a. ... Thus, the prince's action would have been the highest treason and must, at all costs, be kept secret... .

While Islamic law does prescribe the death penalty for adultery, it also requires four eye-witnesses to the act or a thrice repeated confession and it is thus almost impossible to prove. Former American Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Egypt Hermann Eilts says that it is his understanding that Saudi private citizens firmly believe the execution was a family and not an Islamic matter. Further, he says there was a great deal of sympathy for Prince Mohammed. The behavior of his granddaughter was an intolerable blot on his family honor and, say private Saudis, in similar circumstances they would have done the same thing themselves. Eilts stresses the lack of comprehension of westerners of the meaning of honor to the Saudis and other Middle Eastern peoples. He felt this cultural misunderstanding caused a great deal of the bad feeling. However, he also stressed that an inability by the Saudis to understand public relations caused them to handle their legitimate concerns about the film shortsightedly. This poor handling led to undue publicity which attracted many otherwise disinterested viewers to what he considers a badly researched and balanced film.

The Saudis also took special umbrage at a short scene in the film in which Saudi princesses were shown cruising the outer highways of Riyadh looking for men. This scene was not only perceived by Saudis as an insult to Saudi women, but also, according to Michael Tingay, as a dishonor to the House of Saud. A former Middle Eastern correspondent for the Financial Times of London, Tingay argues that showing such alleged promiscuity among women of the royal family dishonored the Saudi Arabian woman, the family, and the tribe. Writes Tingay:

The deep sense of shame created by the public portrayal of Saudi Arabian womanhood in this fashion is religious as well as tribal in origin. In the eyes of the Moslem purist, the Saudi Arabian royal family is responsible for any public dishonor. Departures from rectitude and orthodoxy, as perceived by religious fundamentalists, undermines the legitimacy of the House of Saud.

Several critics and columnists noted this scene and some commented on it as being unnecessary and tasteless. The Economist said:

One of the film's most gripping sequences was almost certainly unfair; scenes of the bored princesses at home listening and dancing to pop music were followed by their predatory drive into the desert to pick, behind their veils, a temporary mate. The evidence for the vacuity of the princesses' lives is more substantial than for the promiscuity of those desert raids.

Ambassador Eilts says that this scene is totally untrue and he feels cheapened the film's purpose.

Aside from the essential facts that the execution did take place and that the princess's grandfather insisted upon this punishment, most of the story, says Eilts, was derived from Palestinian barroom type gossip in Beirut and elsewhere and from those who knew little about Saudi Arabia.

New York Times reviewer John O'Connor points out what may have really upset the Saudis is that the film is actually about politics and not religion. The film discusses such questions as the political origins of the veil, and is directly interwoven with the history and passions of the current Middle Eastern political situation.

"Death of a Princess" in Great Britain

On April 9, 1980, Associated Television showed "Death of a Princess" to an estimated 10 million Britons. Although "rejecting Saudi pleas that the film be amended or scrapped..." ATV agreed to include an introductory comment that said: "… The program you are about to see is a dramatized reconstruction of certain events which took place in the Arab world between 1976 and 1978. We have been asked to point out that equality for all before the law is regarded as paramount in the Moslem world. …"

And the next day, the British Foreign Office released a statement saying: "We profoundly regret any offence which the program may have caused in Saudi Arabia. We have, of course, no power to interfere with the editorial content of programs, still less to ban them."

On April 11, the Saudi Embassy in London called "Death of a Princess": "… an unprincipled attack on the religion of Islam and its 600 million people and on the way of life of Saudi Arabia, which is at the heart of the world of Islam."

On the twenty-third of April, the government of Saudi Arabia requested Great Britain to withdraw its Ambassador to Jeddah, James Craig. Although a serious step, it was thought to be temporary. The British Foreign Office said that the Embassy staff would stay in Jeddah and the Embassy would remain open.

The decision to make this request, reached at a meeting of the Council headed by then Crown Prince Fahd was, according to the government-owned Saudi press agency: "… in the light of the British Government's negative attitude toward the screening of the shameful film." At that time, the Saudis also issued a statement saying it had carefully examined economic relations between the Kingdom and Britain, and especially the activity of British companies in the Kingdom. …

The Soviets could not resist getting into the act. On April 12, 1980, the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union in English (London) transmitted a story headlined "British-Saudi Relations: 'Big Scandal' over TV Film," and on the 24th of that month, another one called "The 'Scandal' in British-Saudi Arabian Relations." The Soviets used this opportunity to harangue the British:

London, which was in a hurry to express "regret" and was trying to "reason" (with) the Saudi side, would like to reduce things only to a deplorable "incident". In doing so, some people on the banks of the Thames prefer not to remember the long history of British Colonialism in the Middle and Near East, which was full of violence and intrigues, disrespect for the national cultural values and traditions of the Arabs and other peoples in that region. They fail to recollect also that it is precisely British colonialists, who were closely cooperating with the U.S. and other imperialist circles, that plundered and continue plundering the oil and other riches of other peoples in the region.

On April 25, the Financial Times of London commented on British interests in Saudi Arabia apart from trade:

In the 13 months to June last year construction contracts worth £288 million were awarded to U.K. companies. Britain has several large continuing contracts in Saudi Arabia, including the British Aerospace Corporation's Saudi Air Force, worth between £500 million and £850 million over the period 1977-1981, and a contract worth £148 million for cable and wireless to modernize the communications system of the National Guard. … British Aerospace is one of two competitors for a large Arabsat satellite communications contract, to be awarded by a multi-state Arab organisation based in Riyadh.

Forty thousand Britons are employed in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is also England's largest export market in the Middle East and a diplomatic link for the British to the Arab world. In 1979, Great Britain exported about $2 billion in goods to Saudi Arabia, which is its eleventh largest market in the world. In 1979 Great Britain still got 16 percent of its oil from the Saudis. The vast funds at the disposal of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAHA) -- which British banks compete to manage and British bond markets seek to attract -- also made good relations between the two countries an important concern. And as a major arms purchaser, Saudi Arabia was a handsome potential customer for British weapons, especially its Nimrod aircraft.

During the weeks following the screening of "Death of a Princess" in Great Britain, new limitations were placed on visas issued to British company executives in Saudi Arabia. In addition, a large U.S. construction firm was instructed not to subcontract to the British. And other pressures were brought to bear. British Airways suddenly was told that no further supersonic flights would be allowed over Saudi Arabia. Such a ban wiped out the profit from the Concorde's London-Singapore route. Lebanon also banned British supersonic flights over its territory and the British were forced to seek new eastern air lanes.

Despite the hardships inflicted by Saudi sanctions, the British made few soothing diplomatic moves. Lord Carrington did term the affair "unfortunate," with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office issuing a statement saying:

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 TV or elsewhere. We hope it will be possible to restore relations on their normal level as soon as possible.

And various British officials and members of Parliament took ATV to task for the film. The Financial Times reported remarks by Deputy Foreign Secretary Sir Ian Gilmore and others: "Sir Ian said that the whole genre (docudrama) was something to which the Independent Broadcasting Authority, and BBC should be giving very careful attention."

Mr. Nicholas Winterton, a Conservative from Macclesfield: "… called on the Government to apologize to the Saudi Government and Royal Family for the film." Alleging that Mr. Thomas:

"… had a history of producing inaccurate and biased films," he wanted the government to ensure that "These Left-wingers do not have the power to undermine the best interests of the U.K."

Labor backbencher Mr. Andrew Faulds, who is the spokesman for arts: "… criticized the irresponsibility and self interest of some of the bright boys of the media." While Mr. Peter Shore, Labor's front bench foreign affairs spokesman: "… urged the Minister to make it plain to the Saudi Government that Press and TV in Britain were not subject to Ministerial dictation." And David Winnick, a Labor member, said: "It is undignified to see a British Foreign Secretary virtually apologizing to a reactionary feudal state about what has been shown on TV in this country."

In the media, meanwhile, the Financial Times editorialized: "There can be no firm guidelines on presenting events in the third world in a way that does not necessarily offend the sensitivities of local regimes. Attempts to work out a code through, for instance, the auspices of international bodies like UNESCO end up by distorting the truth. ..." "In the last resort..." said the editorial:

"Judgment must remain with the individual organisation. 'Death of a Princess' is open to criticism. But that is not a reason for suppressing it."

In late May, Prince Fahd, now the Saudi King, linked the "Princess" controversy to larger issue:

Kuwait, 24th May: In a statement published here, the Saudi Crown Prince, Prince Fahd, described the film "The Death of a Princess" as part of a campaign designed to distract the attention of the Kingdom from Arab questions. … " Prince Fahd accused imperialism, communism and reaction or taking part in a fierce campaign against his country, saying that it began two years ago. He linked the campaign to the signing by the Egyptian President, Anwar as-Sadat [sic], of the Camp David accords with Israel. He said: "The Zionist forces are trying to distract us with secondary battles from our attitude towards our nation and its just causes."

At end May, then Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington remarked that the film was "deeply offensive" and said that he "wished it had never been shown." Speaking at a meeting sponsored by the Middle East Association, he noted, however that: "… It was not the government's role to ban a film because we do not like it or even because it hurts our friends." Asked whether his statement should be regarded as an apology, Carrington said it was "a statement of what Her Majesty's Government thinks."

By July, the British ambassador was back in Jeddah, and within a few months normal privileges were restored to British businesses operating there.

"Death of a Princess" in the United States

At the outset, Public Broadcasting Service officials seemed calm about the substantial efforts the Saudis had made to suppress the showing of the film in England and in other countries. The day after the diplomatic rupture between Britain and Saudi Arabia, PBS officials were reported as saying: "… So far there had been no direct pressure from any official source. …"

And this was repeated in a May 2nd "Advisory to Editors":

In recent days, serious questions have been raised regarding PBS's scheduling of DEATH OF A PRINCESS. As you know, this same program has already been broadcast in Britain and Holland, where it has caused considerable controversy. In that connection, I should emphasize that we have received no communication or expression of views on our broadcast of this program from any official of the United States government or of any other government.

Pressed on the issue by reporters on April 24th, PBS Director of Current Affairs Programming, Barry Chase, said that PBS "would not alter its plans" for film airings. Mr. Chase is quoted as saying:

It is a sensitive treatment of the Arab predicament, that a 1,400-year-old culture is being whipsawed by western influences while trying to adhere to the ancient principles. No one, not even the Saudis, allege that the program is inaccurate or untrue, but they are clearly embarrassed by the depiction of the royal life style.

On April 11th, PBS issued a press release describing the uproar in Great Britain and stating that the film would be seen in the U.S. as part of the PBS "World" series on May 12th2. It described the film as follows:

The World special recounts a reporter's journey through the Arab world to investigate the life and death of a Saudi princess and her lover. While a dramatized account, "Death of a Princess" is based on transcripts and records relating to the actual public execution of Princess Misha'al, granddaughter of Prince Mohammed, the elder brother of Saudi King Khalid.

"Death of a Princess" describes Misha'al's confinement in a women's palace after the collapse of an arranged marriage to a royal cousin. The film infers that, after being prevented from leaving Saudi Arabia with her lover, Misha'al was denied due process of Islamic law. The two lovers were summarily put to death in a public place.

The news release quotes Executive Producer Fanning as saying that the intent of the film was to offer a sensitive view of circumstances which "lent themselves" to this tragedy:

The film is far from an attack. … It's a very sophisticated journey into the private circles of the Arab world. … The girl is a symbol of the Arab predicament -- someone stretched three ways between the West, radical Arab politics and the strict ethic of the desert. Both (Producer/Director) Anthony Thomas and I share a great concern for the Arab world.

Four days before the film was to be broadcast in the U.S., Mobil Oil Company proclaimed its opposition. On May 8th, it ran an advertisement on the Op-Ed page of half a dozen newspapers, including The New York Times. This "advertorial" questioned the artistic integrity of producer Anthony Thomas, asserting that his reliance on fictional characters and reconstructed conversations was deceptive. It intimated that the privilege of freedom of the press was being abused. Mobil also claimed that public support of PBS entitled the U.S. government to special concern over the film. It concluded with the hope that PBS would: "... 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."

As one of the "Four Sisters" -- along with Exxon, Texaco, and Socal -- in the oil producing partnership Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO), Mobil has a substantial interest in Saudi Arabia's well-being. ARAMCO at that time produced nearly 75 percent of Saudi Arabia's petroleum.

Mobil is also important to PBS. The company spent $2.3 million in 1979, and at that time was expected to spend about $3.2 million in 1980 to underwrite programming on public television.

Although the company did not threaten to withhold future funding for PBS ventures because of its disapproval of "Death of a Princess," the fact that it had contributed $30 million to public broadcasting over the preceding decade surely did not go unnoticed.

On the day the Mobil ads were placed, WGBH president, David O. Ives: "... said that he had no reason to believe that airing the film would 'affect our relationship with them (Mobil) as funders of different kinds of programming.'"

Exxon, another partner in ARAMCO, also supports public television in the amount of $4 million annually. A spokesman for that company said that showing "Death of a Princess" would not affect its relationship with PBS. Exxon told reporters that it: "… had heard from the Saudis about the film and had passed the objections on to the State Department. …"

Some of the industry officials of other ARAMCO companies were, at that time, said to be privately concerned that, if the film were shown, the Saudis might cut their oil production.

A day later, then acting Secretary of State Warren Christopher expressed reservations about the film. On May 9th, Mr. Christopher sent a letter to PBS president Lawrence Grossman relaying the concerns of the Saudi government, which had been expressed in a letter from Saudi Ambassador to the U.S., Sheik Faisal Alhegelan. In this letter, Christopher also conveyed his own reservations about the sensitive nature of the film's contents. The Christopher letter reads as follows:

I am enclosing a letter just received from the Ambassador to the United States of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia expressing his Government's deep concern about reports the film "Death of a Princess" will be shown on the Public Broadcasting System. As you will see, the Ambassador's letter explains why his Government was deeply offended by the televising of the film in the United Kingdom.

I want to assure you that the Government of the United States cannot and will not attempt to exercise any power of censorship over the Public Broadcasting System. We have no doubt that, in the exercise of (y)our programming judgment, you will give appropriate consideration to the sensitive religious and cultural issues involved and assure that viewers are given a full and balanced presentation.

The letter enclosed by Christopher from Saudi Ambassador Alhegelan read:

My government has asked me to express concern to you about the showing of the television film "Death of a Princess" on your country's Public Broadcasting System now scheduled for May 12.

We have recently received a recording of the film as shown in England and find it contains many inaccuracies, distortions and falsehoods. The documentary style of the picture is so convincingly done that I fear the casual viewer could consider it a collection of factual and historical events when in reality it is just the opposite. The film shows a completely false picture of the life, religion, customs, and traditions of Saudi Arabia. It also, in many ways, is disparaging to the Muslim religion. The film is therefore offensive, not only to Saudi Arabia but to the entire Islamic world.

We recognize your constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and expression, and it is not my purpose to suggest any infringements upon those rights. However, we feel that you and other responsible officials of your Government would want to know of our concern and the reasons therefore before the film is shown in the United States.

Enclosed is material relating to the film which points out a number of inaccuracies and falsehoods in it. I would appreciate your considering these facts and, if you feel it appropriate, convey our concerns to the Public Broadcasting System. We trust that the Public Broadcasting System or other news media will determine for themelves [sic] what the fictitious items and distortions are and will not report them to the American public as fact.

A major concern to us has always been the lack of adequate understanding between our cultures and our people of each other's way of life, our religions, our customs and our practices. We continue to feel that increasing understanding of these things can only benefit our nations and the world as a whole.

Some of the comments which were included with the Alhegelan letter were expressed as "insults." They were keyed to specific pages of the script and listed as follows:

"Some of the 'Insults to Islam &/or Arabs'

"Frustration and the 'feeling of revolt' is no excuse for the crime of adultry [sic].

"--- nor is material wealth an excuse for adultry [sic].

"The Law applies to all!

"'Love' is no excuse for adultry [sic].

"To many of the Islamic faith the veil is worn with pride.

"False impression of the selection of leaders.

"The sword dances are a tradition of respect to warriors of an earlier time.

"Islamic courts are degraded.

"Some of the 'Insults to Saudi Royal Family'

"Stating that Palestine revolution is 'contained' by Saudi Arabian Government is unacceptable.

"Focusing on Grandfather's alleged character instead of crime of adultry [sic] is unacceptable.

"Frequent claims that execution was to save honor of Granfather [sic] is an insult to the Family.

"Gives a total false impression of selection of the rulers of Saudi Arabia.

"The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was formed without assistance from any outside group.

"All Saudi women have same basic rights and privileges."

The Christopher letter made no attempt to dictate policy to PBS, and insisted that it was not an attempt at censorship. But in conveying the opposition of the Saudi government and urging balance, the letter according to some observers "chilled"3 press freedoms. Two years after the incident, private citizen Warren Christopher defended his decision to join the "Death of a Princess" debate. After a speech at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Christopher contended that his action was widely misperceived and unfairly portrayed. His letter was an attempt, he said, not to censor but to guide. He said he did not intend the letter as a restraint on press freedoms, but simply suggested that the Saudi Arabian perspective should be put in a fair context.

Sources at The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) the only U.S. Government agency having direct jurisdiction over broadcasting, have stated that while they remember the subject well as private citizens, at no time was the FCC, at any level, approached, formally or informally, by any level of the Executive Branch.

Having consistently advocated press freedoms in international debate, and recently struggled to prevent inclusion of the term "balance" in a final UNESCO statement at Belgrade, the United States shocked some observers when its Acting Secretary of State used that word in the "Death of a Princess" controversy. By apprising PBS officials of Saudi concerns for balance, the Acting Secretary seemed to lend legitimacy to the notion.

According to Hodding Carter, III, the State Department spokesman of the time, the decision to send the letter was by no means unanimous within the State Department. He himself, as well as his wife, Patt M. Derian, then serving as Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Human Rights and Human Affairs, "thought it was inappropriate to do so," according to The New York Times. The Times, saying that the White House approved the letter, also reported that: "This was the first time … the State Department had been asked by a government to intercede in advance of a televised film. He (Hodding Carter) said there had been many protests in the past about movies that had been shown."

Newsweek reported that: "… It was the first time the State Department had ever interceded on behalf of a foreign complaint over the airing of a television program. The decision, said one official, was taken 'at the highest level.'"

Reaction to the Acting Secretary's letter in the American press was swift and severe. The New York Times noted that, as a former Assistant Attorney General, Christopher knew better than to encroach upon First Amendment rights and presumably acted "on orders."

A member of the Christopher staff involved in preparation of the letter has said that it was merely meant as a message of transmittal. In hindsight, he says, "balance" was probably an unfortunate choice of words. White House clearance of the letter was obtained in routine fashion at the working and not at the policy level.

On Capitol Hill, debate over showing "Death of a Princess" was mixed and contentious. Several Congressmen accused PBS of "poor judgment" in planning to air the film. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Clement Zablocki, Democrat of Wisconsin, was especially vociferous in criticizing the public network. Zablocki, said Newsweek: "… pointed out that PBS depends on the federal government for 29 percent of its funding. 'If it is going to show substandard films,' he asked, 'why should we waste the taxpayers' money?'"

He was joined in criticism by ranking Republicans Representative William S. Bloomfield of Michigan and Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. But Rep. Andrew Maguire, Democrat of New Jersey, defended the Constitutional guarantees enjoyed by PBS and argued that "the show must go on."

But just how the show would go on was still unclear. PBS officials were quietly considering what to do, partly in response to public protests. According to one report: "… thousands of ordinary citizens telephoned PBS and its member stations … four or five to one against airing the show4."

As a result, WGBH decided that while the film would go on fully intact, it would be followed by an hour-long panel discussion of Islamic issues called "The Arab Dilemma." A WGBH representative is quoted as saying: "We had discussions with PBS about a follow-up program, and this seemed to be the best solution of various concerns."

Produced by WGBH, the panel discussion was led by Michael Dukakis, then between two terms as Governor of Massachusetts, and included Faoud Ajami, Director of Middle Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins, Peter Iseman, a contributing editor to Harper's; Muddasir H. Diddiqui, Imam to the Muslim community of greater Boston; Roger Fisher, professor of International Law at Harvard; Judith Kipper of the American Enterprise Institute; and British writer Andrew Duncan. "The Arab Dilemma" was carried by 231 PBS stations.

The decision to have a controversial program followed by a panel discussion was not unprecedented at PBS. But the decision to lengthen the discussion from a few minutes to an hour after controversy had ensued struck some observers as a gesture of appeasement. Pulitzer Prize winning reviewer Willis A. Henry III called the panel discussion "the most disreputable aspect of the whole affair." Wrote Henry:

"… PBS refused to kowtow to the Saudis by canceling the show. Instead it kowtowed to the Arabs and their influential friends by staging an hour of apology for being American, white, Western, and industrial."

The panelists were "shills for the Saudis," Henry said.

Had "Death of a Princess" been a documentary, such a controversy over the ensuing panel discussion might not have arisen. Section 315 of the 1934 Communications Act, the Fairness Doctrine, states that:

... nothing … shall be construed as relieving broadcasters, in connection with the presentation of newscasts, news interviews, news documentaries, and on-the-spot coverage of news events, from the obligation imposed upon them under this chapter to operate in the public interest and to afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views on issues of public importance.

But the docudrama, lying as it does somewhere between fact and fiction, may slip through the cracks of the intent of the Congress.

On May 12, 1980, PBS put "Death of a Princess" on the air. Most PBS stations in the country resisted pressure and expressions of concern. PBS spokesman, Mark Harrad said: "Mobil and others are in the business of marketing oil products, and we're in the business of the free flow of information and the First Amendment."

But such "free flow" did not occur everywhere. Altogether, 38 PBS stations in 13 states did not carry the film and 46 stations delayed its broadcast. But some of these stations never intended to carry it. Fourteen of the 158 licensees did not contribute to funding for the "World" series and, thus, did not plan to show the film. Five PBS stations in South Carolina -- where Saudi investors have large holdings in real estate in Hilton Head and other coastal resorts, and where then U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, John West, once served as governor -- refused to air the docudrama. Patricia Dressler, as spokesperson for the South Carolina PBS stations:

… said that the network had been under no outside pressures, but that its decision to cancel the film had been influenced by the fact that the state's former Governor, John C. West, is the United States Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

"We are more sensitive to relationships with the Saudi Arabian Government because of Mr. West's position. … We felt that in light of the international situation there was no reason to broadcast a program that we felt would be offensive to the Saudi Arabians."

She added that Mr. West had not called before the network made its decision, but did so to express his appreciation, after he had learned about the action. …

1 The following is one press account of these events, details of which are somewhat foggy: "The actual events took place in 1977 when the princess, a granddaughter of Mohammed ibn Abdel-Aziz, King Khalid's elder brother and one of the most powerful members of the Saudi royal family, was shot upon the orders of her grandfather. She was accused of adultery with a commoner. Her lover was beheaded in a public square. She had been married to Saudi princes and was divorced twice. She left Saudi Arabia for Lebanon where she spent time at the American University of Beirut, meeting her lover there. Upon her return to Saudi Arabia, her request to marry him was refused. The princess was charged with having had relations with the commoner and both were sentenced to death."

2 On May 2nd, Mr. Chase released an Advisory to Editors, which said, in part:

While we fully understand the gravity of the concerns regarding broadcast of this film, we stand by the program and intend to feed it, as scheduled, from 8-10 PM on Monday, May 12. Our reasons are as follows. First, we have every confidence in the integrity of the producer, WGBH, and in the integrity of this particular program. It is this season's final program in the WORLD series, which has just received a Peabody Award for outstanding current affairs achievement. As David Ives, President of WGBH, recently stated...: "Every salient fact has been checked and double checked. In all the controversy surrounding the film since its broadcast in England and Holland, there has been no rebuttal to those facts and none is likely." PBS agrees with and endorses that statement. … Second, it is precisely because of the Islamic world's central importance in today's international arena that Americans must become better informed about the political, religious and cultural issues in that region. …

3 In constitutional law, the chilling effect doctrine includes "…any law or practice which has the effect of seriously discouraging the exercise of a constitutional right. ..."

4 The Mobil ad played a part in stimulating these protests, but so did literally hundreds of columns that were written in papers all over the country as the date for scheduled airing of the "Princess" drew near. Columnists took all sides of the issue and created huge viewer interest in the coming broadcast. WHET-TV in Newark, N.J. reported having 1,500 calls between Thursday, the day the Mobil ads appeared, and Monday, when the film was shown, with 80 percent of the callers opposed to the showing. After the program, about 600 calls ran 2-1/2 to 1 for the film. WETA-TV, Washington, D.C., "… received hundreds of phone calls, nearly all urging cancellation of the show." Herbert Schmertz, Mobil's Vice President of Public Affairs, is reported to have "… said (that) the oil company had received a number of calls from persons who said they had not known that "Death of a Princess" was a 'fictionalized program.'"

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posted april 19, 2005

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