Electronic Working Paper 22

The Political and Cultural Dynamics of United Nations
Media Scandals: from Waldheim to Annan

Ingrid A. Lehmann
Department of Communication at the University of Salzburg , Austria


This Working Paper presents a cross-cultural analysis of media scandals affecting an inter-governmental organization, the United Nations, over a twenty-year time period. In the paper international media scandals are approached and analysed as struggles over power which impact the image of international leaders, i.e. two secretaries-general of the United Nations. Following John Thompson's seminal work on media scandals it is asserted that scandals can seriously to irreparably damage the reputation of individuals and institutions. However, as this study shows, the Waldheim scandal in 1986 which occurred after he had left the United Nations and became enmeshed in issues of the "Second Cold War", did not damage the UN as an institution. In the case of Kofi Annan, two incidents are analysed. The first occurred in 2004 when Annan pronounced the Iraq war "illegal". This prompted an onslaught by US neo-conservative media, while European media treated the issue very differently, thus substantiating the thesis of a "transatlantic media divide" over the Iraq war. The second instance was related to the release of a report by Paul Volcker on the Oil-for-Food program in 2005 which appeared to "absolve" Annan, but which nevertheless led to serious and multiple allegations against him in various U.S. media. Calls for Annan's resignation were, however, not heeded. Again, the media in European countries did not portray the Oil-for-Food program as negatively as in the U.S. Different political cultures are seen to be the determining factor in the variation in media reporting on these scandals.

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