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Persephobia and the press

By Genevieve New
August 21, 2001
The Iranian

I am a sociology graduate living in England. I have attached a study which looks at Iran's representation in the British Press. I hope you find it interesting.


Persephobia describes an unfounded hostility towards Persia and Persians. My study focuses on the existence and extent of misrepresentation of Iran within western media. I am going to look at press articles to investigate the way in which ideas about Iran are constructed. I aim to expose any evidence of misrepresentation within the articles, and the extent to which they promote Islamaphobia or Persephobia. I also wish to look for signs over time of a move towards a more culturally relativist perspective of Iran.

I have focused on news articles in the British press; analysed using predominantly qualitative techniques. I look at newspapers with varied audiences and political perspectives. Three major events over ten-year intervals are analysed to look for evidence, and any progression, of Persephobia in the press.


* Introduction

* Chapter 1
Literature Review

-- Introduction
-- Ideology
-- Discourse
-- The Press
-- Ethnocentrism
-- Demonisation
-- Orientalism
-- Islamaphobia
-- Persephobia
-- Conclusion

* Chapter 2

-- Research Methods
-- Research Design Issues

* Chapter 3

-- Introduction
-- Event analysis 1
-- Background
-- Headlines and Leads
-- Main articles
-- Event analysis 2
-- Background
-- Headlines and Leads
-- Main articles
-- Event analysis 3
-- Background
-- Headlines and Leads
-- Main articles

* Chapter 4

-- Ideology
-- Perspective
-- Binary
-- Representation/stereotypes
-- Ethnocentrism
-- Demonisation
-- Islamaphobia
-- Persephobia
-- Reflections

* Bibliography

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This project looks at how the western media portray Iran and its people. My mixed Persian/English background helps explain my interest in this particular area. I have been able to experience both cultures first hand, and also have an adequate knowledge of their politics and histories. From lay observations I have witnessed some inaccurate representations of Iran and Iranians in various western media. Therefore I felt the question of how western media portray Iran warranted investigation.

An example of malevolent representations of Iran by the West would be the accusations levelled at Prime Minister Mossadeq. Mossadeq became Prime Minister in 1951 and he was committed to the nationalisation of Iranian oil. Studies have shown that in the U.S. media he passed from insignificance to devil status. Dorman and Farhang (1987) observe that 'Over about a two-year period, then, Mossadeq's portrait would change from that of a quaint nationalist to that of near lunatic to one, finally, of Communist dupe' (Cited in Chomsky, 1989:284). As the United States geared to overthrow Mossadeq, his media image deteriorated. Labelling Mossadeq a 'Communist' helped to justify his removal by the U.S. and Britain in the public eye.

There has been limited research on perceptions of Iran by the West. There is some research on Islamaphobia, namely the West's hostility to Islamic ideology, which relates to Iran. Previous research relating to 'the West and the Middle East' usually focuses on Arab countries. Although Iran is commonly classified as a Middle Eastern country, it has a unique political and economic system within the region; it practices the minority Shia sect of Islam and has a multitude of ethnicities. Thus issues pertaining to the Middle East as a whole often have little or no relevance to Iran.

I have focused on news articles in the British Press; analysed using predominantly qualitative techniques. My study focuses on the existence and extent of misrepresentation of Iran within western media. This does not presuppose that this phenomenon is exclusively western. On the contrary, I could have applied the same question in reverse, How does the Iranian media portray the West?

In Chapter 1 I review background literature concerning the 'manufacture' of news in general; books that deal with relevant concepts such as labelling and Islamaphobia; and finally literature directly concerning Iran and its presentation within western media. Chapter 2 outlines and justifies the research method used, discourse analysis of newspapers. The research material and process are described and evaluated, and any research design issues, such as ethics or reliability, are highlighted here. Key findings from my research are presented in Chapter 3, such as the general themes and patterns that have emerged. Chapter 4, the conclusion, consists of a reflection on the key findings from my research and is my opportunity to generate a hypothesis relating to the content of these articles. The hypothesis is then assessed against previous contentions from my literature review to see whether it supports or refutes their arguments, or if there are equally valid alternative explanations of my findings.

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Chapter 1: Literature Review


The mass media have an important role to play in our lives; they communicate information to us about other places, across time and space. They can bring us news about events happening in parts of the world that we have no knowledge or personal experience of, or will ever see first hand. The 'knowledge' presented to us will inevitably contribute to the way we perceive the subject of what is presented, especially if we have no access to other perspectives of that subject. The mass media, being one of the most powerful institutions, may be able to construct meanings about an event, culture, and so forth, according to dominant ideas and interpretations. In other words, they may construct ideas about distant others in a biased manner. The media has the ability to construct the way we think about a subject, whether this is a benevolent or malevolent construction. In the case of representing other societies, power relations may determine how that society is presented to us. Van Dijk explains how, in democratic societies, 'little power can be legitimated and hence be truly effective without some form of popular support or consent' and therefore 'we confront the vital role of the media' (1991:42). Some commentators note that the western media have had the power to construct negative images of those societies that 'threaten', or do not share, the liberal/democratic/capitalist ideology, such as the Soviet Union. The media had the power to construe socialism and Communism as fundamentally evil ideologies - 'the evil empire'. Conversely, the western media have portrayed societies, such as Israel, in a positive manner, perhaps because they may have vested interests in this portrayal. Curran exemplifies how the media are the 'machinery of representation' in modern societies:

What we know of society depends on how things are represented to us and that knowledge in turn informs what we do and what policies we are prepared to accept (1997:9)

Much of the literature on the media is concerned with how they tend not to present issues in a neutral manner. Some academics believe state ideology influences the media and therefore the media suffer from institutional bias. Another recurrent criticism of the media is that they are ethnocentric; they judge outsiders subjectively - according to their own norms, values and ideas.


Ideology may be embedded in representations of the 'other'. Representations can serve to support ideological positions. Van Dijk (1988:83) argues that, ideologically, news implicitly promotes the dominant beliefs and opinions of elite groups in society. Jensen (1995:88) also argues that official views are resonated through news, and thus 'news is ideological'. Wilkins (1997:60) confirms this position 'The images used in the western press compose a selective portrait of reality that resonates with the dominant western ideological perspectives'. Naficy (1997:74) adds that the dominant ideologies remain latent and are taken for granted, they permeate everyday discourse in the form of common sense 'They are thus naturalised and depoliticised'.

Ferguson explains how events of which we hear or read are 'mediated accounts of what has happened' (1998:155). Van Dijk contends that 'The exercise of power in modern, democratic societies is no longer primarily coercive, but persuasive, that is, ideological' (1991:37). Information is actively being provided to the press from the perspective of the British government. Sparks (1986:76) confirms that 'There is no question but that the government influences the way in which the media reports events'. He supports this statement with the fact that '... the government information services issue over 10,000 press releases each year' (1986:79). Eldridge maintains that the public can be appealed to so that they may 'endorse ready-made opinions as to what should be done' (1997:61). In other words the myth can provide justification for punitive measures; the media is aware they have the capacity to influence foreign policy.


A discourse is a group of statements which provide a language for talking about, or representing, a particular kind of knowledge about a topic. A discourse makes it possible to construct that topic in a certain way; it also limits the alternative ways in which it can be constructed. Hall outlines how the 'West' was able to construct a discourse of the 'non-West'. He draws attention to the way the discourse of 'the West and the Rest' uses 'crude and simplistic' distinctions and constructs an 'over-simplified' conception of difference:

In short, the discourse, as a 'system of representation', represents the world as divided according to a simple dichotomy - the West/the Rest. (1992:280)

Thus, the West is represented as homogeneous when it is comprised of very diverse European cultures; furthermore, all of these western cultures are supposedly united by their fundamental difference from the non-western world. However, some countries, such as those in Eastern Europe, may in fact feel more affiliation with eastern cultures. For instance, many Albanians may be considered as more religious than is the norm for secular western societies. The West is typically equated with development and rationality, and the non-West with backwardness and superstition. Hall suggests that the concept of 'discourse' is governed by power since it is power, not reality, which makes things true:

Discourses ... always operate in relation to power - they are part of the way power circulates and is contested ... When it is effective - organizing and regulating relations of power (say, between the West and the Rest) - it is called a 'regime of truth'. (1992:295)

Finally Hall (1992:318) suggests that 'in transformed and reworked forms' the discourse of the West/Rest still inflects the language of the West 'its image of itself and 'others', its sense of 'us' and 'them', its practices and relations of power towards the 'Rest'. He emphasises that this discourse has made a significant contribution towards the contemporary languages of racial inferiority and ethnic superiority.

They (the West) has the power to make us see and experience ourselves as 'Other'. Every regime of representation is a regime of power formed, as Foucault reminds us, 'power/knowledge'. (1990:225)

Discourse works effectively by appealing to common sense, making gross stereotypes appear as natural. Ferguson follows Barthes' (1972) work on naturalisation of stereotypes. He argues that:

Naturalisation is the process whereby specific social relationships, often of power and subordination, are constructed and presented as natural rather than being a result of complex historical interactions between individuals, ethnic or other groups, genders, classes and power blocs. (1998:156)

He believes that the media use representations of normality in order to provide views and representations which are in fact highly questionable. Those representations can serve to confirm ideological positions, mainly through appeals to common sense and a notion of normality. Twitchin suggests that the power of dominant stereotypes lie in the fact that they derive from a consensus - they 'fit' with the dominant ideology and power relations of society. 'Thus, we may not notice 'negative' stereotypes - we may not be aware of them as stereotypes - because they fit so neatly with 'common sense' ideology' (1992:219).

Ferguson proposes that stereotypes do not exist in a vacuum, instead they are produced and invoked in specific social, economic and political contexts. He notes that newspapers can and often do change the modality of their judgements over time. Therefore the crassness of some reportage may evolve into a more measured approach to the 'Other'. However he asserts that this does not necessarily mean that the representations are more progressive, rather, the ideological import of specific messages are likely to be embedded in implicit as much as explicit discourses:

This is never more the case than when the media are dealing with what is considered to be normal, common sense, the 'way things are'. The invocation of normality and the establishment of culturally and politically acceptable behavioural patterns often form the keystone for ideological arguments made at the expense of individuals, groups or nations deemed to be 'other'.(1998:154)

The Press

Van Dijk (1988) highlights the fact that news reports are the main form of public discourse that provides 'The general outline of social, political, cultural, and economic models of societal events, as well as the pervasively dominant knowledge and attitude structures that make such models intelligible' (1988:182). He states that journalists participate in news encounters and write news articles as 'social members'. This will affect their knowledge, beliefs, attitudes and ideologies. Journalists may be aligned to, or even inclined to align to, the editor's ideology. Van Dijk proposes that 'The major Press perspective in the coverage of ethnic affairs remains that of 'us' versus 'them'. He emphasises the partisan fashion in which the news is produced, for example, the Press can endorse the ideology that legitimates white group dominance, then they can elevate instances that support this view and marginalise, ignore or discredit opposing positions. He states that the Press 'provide specially selected 'facts' and preformulate preferred meanings and opinions' (1991:39).

Greenslade outlines how 'mythomaniac' editors, who are always aware of the prejudices of their readers, can run stories which will stimulate their outrage, 'They can then employ a battery of journalistic techniques - repetition, selective reporting, polemic, distortion, hyperbole, factual omission - to ensure that the person or group will be damned for ever more'. He continues to explain that, from the moment of demonisation, the papers must be sure that the 'monster' will initiate the correct reactions:

It is therefore always the case that papers will play on pre-existing fears in society, or - in the case of creating foreign monsters - must show that they pose a threat to our way of life or the lives of Our Boys. (2000:71)

Ethnicity is noted by many commentators to have replaced racial differentiation. Rather than identify phenotypic difference, which may be seen as blatantly racist, journalists may employ notions of cultural difference, for example, highlighting the 'oppression' of arranged marriages as against the 'freedom' of western-style marriages. Van Dijk (1991:103) highlights how culture is usually perceived as newsworthy when it can be defined as problematic and as an illustration of stereotypes and prejudices.

Van Dijk also emphasises that, despite its dependence on power elites, the Press does not 'passively participate in the reproduction of power'. The Press may in fact voice conflicting interests, represent legitimate opposition groups, or even speak 'for the people'. He emphasises that power not only invites compliance but also provokes resistance, and its supporting ideologies may 'condition the formation of counter-ideologies' (1991:38). Much of the literature concerning the British Press highlights the fact that the right-wing papers are generally unsympathetic to cultural difference and anti-racism, whilst papers of the centre or left are generally more supportive. Alibhai-Brown, in reference to writers for the Guardian (recognised as a liberal, left-leaning paper), notes how:

White journalists have shown themselves capable of understanding the deepest impulses of black and Asian communities and communicating these in a way that makes sense to readers from all ethnic groups. (1999:119)


Haque (1997:23) suggests that 'One of the greatest problems of communication across cultures and studying values and religion is ethnocentrism'. Ethnocentrism describes the way we may judge another culture by our own standards rather than theirs. Malek and Wiegand (1997:202) argue that a lack of cultural relativity is a key contributor to misrepresentation in the media. They assert that:

Western media have always played a role in asserting the superiority of western culture and its attributes, including democracy, capitalism, and secularism. Leading players in the media are fully aware of the power they have to influence opinion in society about foreign cultures, especially those about which western society has no other means of accessing information. (1997:204)

Commentators have noted how the western media have tended to construct other societies in terms of being the binary opposite to the 'West'. Hall (1997:259) suggests this form of power is closely connected with the practices of what Foucault calls 'power/knowledge'. In other words, those with power can construct ideas, and language used, about another subordinate group, through binary oppositions: white/black, beautiful/ugly, cultured/simple, rational/irrational, and so on. Non-white populations are typically projected in western discourse as the undesirable 'other'.

Ferguson (1998:68) proposes that, 'A key issue has been the way in which the global Other has become something, in media terms, which is paired with the West as its (binary) comparison'. However, he notes that the two are not equal discursive partners. On the contrary, the 'West' is in a position of relative power over the 'Rest'. Throughout history, the 'West' has given itself authority to present 'knowledge' about the 'non-West':

The almost entirely negative discursive construction of the Rest (Other) is seen as rooted in the arrogant certainties of Enlightenment thinking. Enlightenment discourse had attempted to establish universal norms. These norms, according to critics, were not so much universal, as Eurocentric. It was then only a small step, analytically, to argue that Eurocentric thinking was likely to be racist thinking. (1998:68)

Ferguson highlights another problem with the concept of otherness when invoked in relation to media representations: they often tend to essentialise the object. 'Characteristics are thus attributed to certain groups which are apparently timeless and frequently demeaning' (1998:69). Stereotypes reduce people to a few, simple, essential characteristics, which are represented as eternally fixed. Hall notes that stereotyping tends to occur where there are gross inequalities of power, with power usually directed against the subordinate or excluded group. In effect, it is part of the maintenance of social and symbolic order:

Stereotyping ... facilitates the 'binding' or bonding together of all of Us who are 'normal' into one 'imagined community'; and it sends into symbolic exile all of Them - who are in some way very different - 'beyond the pale'. (1997:258)

A recurring attribute accorded to the 'other' by the media is that of violence. Schlesinger suggests that '... the interpretation of violence may work as a way of codifying the world into 'friends' and 'enemies', of separating 'us' from 'them', the 'national' and the 'alien' (1991:2).


Curran suggests that 'Demonology is a device used by those who attempt hegemony; in societies such as ours it is used very effectively through channels of mass communications' (1997:72). Monsters or folk devils are people who, because of their behaviour, cannot be redeemed, they are, borrowing Hall's term, 'beyond the pale'. Alexander outlines how: 'The creation of a folk devil demands simplicity at the expense of any recognition of humanity' (2000:21).

The idea of demonisation and moral panics originate from the work of Stan Cohen (1987:9), whereby a 'group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media'. The idea of demonisation, labelling, and moral panics has been developed further. In 'policing the crisis' (1978), Hall et al, from the Birmingham school of cultural studies, argue that there has been a demonisation of black youth because of media reportage. In the early 1970s, mugging became defined almost exclusively as a problem with black youth, and they became primary folk devils. Until then there had been no explicit association between black youth and crime.

Contradiction is an important concept with regard to researching media representations. Ferguson (1998) offers examples such as the media labelling immigrant groups as less inclined to work than others, whilst also representing immigrants elsewhere as willing to keep a shop they own open all hours. He also points to how laziness in indigenous white people may be celebrated in comedy shows. Hall illustrates how contradictions are prevalent in discourse of the 'other'. He uses an example of 'repelling- because- different/compelling- because- strange- and-exotic' (1997:229), and points to how 'the other' is often required to be both things at the same time. Ferguson contends that:

Media discourses have to be conceptualised as fluid, often contradictory and as one contributory element in the ideological formation and/or sustenance of an audience or society. (1998:132)


Said's study of 'Orientalism' looks at how the West constructed a discourse about the Near east during the nineteenth Century. He argues that 'Orientalism' allowed the West to 'manage - and even produce - the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period' (1995:3). Said draws attention to the way in which the discourse of Orientalism had designated the 'dreams, images and vocabularies' available to anyone wishing to study or explore the East.


Van Dijk states that the intensive coverage of Islam in the British Press is most striking within his research, as was the definition of Muslims as a 'political, social and cultural 'threat'' (1991:90). Islam is being treated in terms of a threat to the British people and their culture, and to western values in general. Roberson proposes that the late 20th Century western concern regarding an Islamic threat began with the Iranian Islamic Revolution which 'overturned a staunch and strategically important ally of the West, the Shah of Iran' (1998:106). However what constitutes this threat is not obvious. Roberson suggests that the Islamic threat is essentially a counterfeit issue with stereotypical misperceptions and a casual commitment to analysis. Salamé comments on how European media link terrorism and Islamism (political Islam) as though they are synonymous. He points to the way in which simplistic ideas are conveyed of 'an almost organic link between Islam and violence' (1998:32). Iran, as a prominent Islamic state, would undoubtedly be included in these essentialised representations. Roberson proceeds to argue that:

The terrorism, violence and extremist pronouncements of militant Islamist groups elsewhere are projected not only onto Islamists in Europe but onto Muslims in general, without regard for the differing circumstances and the differences among Muslims. In this way, the Islamic threat takes on a generalised form. (1998:117)

He adds that the 'threat' may be a conscious exercise in image creation for 'tactical political purposes'. There is little chance of an Islamic unity being forged in the East which is fundamentally hostile to the West. As Roberson comments, 'It is not possible within Islam for one view of the religion to be enforced or maintained' (1998:110). In fact, Roberson goes on to suggest that the West may indeed fear the Islamist victim seeking refuge as much as it fears the Islamist, based on the experience of the Iranian Revolution.

Islamaphobia is being recognised as an ever prevalent problem in contemporary western societies. The Runnymede Trust commissioned a report on Islamaphobia, they define the phenomenon as 'unfounded hostility' towards Islam and the 'practical consequences' of such hostility, such as unfair discrimination against Muslim individuals. They propose that:

Closed views see total difference between Islam on the one hand and the non-Muslim world, particularly the so-called West, on the other. Islam is 'other', with few or no similarities between itself and other civilisations and cultures ... Claims that Islam is totally different and other often involve stereotypes and claims about 'us' (non-Muslims) as well as about 'them' (Muslims), and the notion that 'we' are superior. 'We' are civilised, reasonable, generous, efficient, sophisticated, enlightened, non-sexist. 'They' are primitive, violent, irrational, scheming, disorganised, oppressive ... Closed views see Islam as violent and aggressive, firmly committed to barbaric terrorism, and implacably hostile to the non-Muslim world. (1997:6-7)

Closed views of Islam may use any epsiode in which an individual Muslim is judged to have behaved badly as an illustrative example to condemn all Muslims without exception. However the Report states that, 'In Islam, as in other faiths and systems of belief, there are lively explorations and debates' (1997:13). In other words, criticisms of actions by some Muslims governments or peoples are debated as much amongst Muslims as between Muslims and non-Muslims. Furthermore, despite popular claims to the contrary, the central values of Islam, particularly equality and social justice, are compatible with western values. In response to views that see Islam as 'implacably hostile' to the non-Muslim world, Modood asserts that:

The Quranic teaching is that people are to be valued in terms of virtue not colour or race. Muslims insist that there is no divinely favoured race and that the Quran is God's message to the whole of mankind. (1992:272)

Indeed, much of the volatility in the Islamic region can safely be attributed to corrupt governments rather than the faith. Modood proceeds to ask:

Is the Enlightenment big enough to legitimize the existence of pre-Enlightenment religious enthusiasm or can it only exist by suffocating all who fail to be overawed by its intellectual brilliance and vision of Man? (1992:274)

Abbas highlights that whilst the term Islamaphobia is coined to describe contemporary hostility towards Islam, anti-Muslim sentiment is a 'well-established tradition' stemming from the confrontations it had with Christianity many centuries ago. He explains:

Then as now, the representation of 'the other' in a negative light legitimised existing power structures and served as propaganda in the long centuries of the battle against Islam (2000:64)

Abbas continues to emphasise that although there have been times of mutual learning and understanding, these are isolated moments in the 'general climate of ignorance, conflict and demonisation in which it has been easier to accept the most outrageous of the myths' (2000:65).

In reference to British culture, Alexander suggests that British/Muslim divisions are replacing black/white divisions:

The reification of 'the Muslim community' has brought with it ... its own set of demonologies - the underclass, the terrorist, the Fundamentalist, the book burner, the rioter - which have served equally to pathologize these groups as communities. (2000:231)

The trend is from racialised discourse towards anti-Muslim, discourse. Islam is the 'other' and fundamentalism is the buzz (derogatory) word, applying to some Muslims but generalised to all. Muslims are generalised as primitive, violent, irrational, oppressive, and so forth. Consider the bombardment of Islamic terrorists portrayed in films, such as True Lies. The term 'fundamentalist', which was first applied to Islam after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, added to the stigmatisation attributed to Islam by the West. Modood qualifies that one cannot discuss British Muslim perspectives without discussing 'fundamentalism': 'It is the word on every lip and journalistic pen and it is what editors want to know about when they commission articles' (1992:265). Abbas notes how, in the media, 'Islamic fundamentalists' became the 'true' Muslims, and all Muslims were Islamic fundamentalists' (2000:65). He qualifies that the groups labelled as fundamentalist have been largely unrepresented in the mainstream Press and silenced by the lack of any alternative voice.


The absence of positive views about a group may be as influential as the presentation of negative ones. Endless depictions of Iranians as terrorists, backward, or irrational people in films, television shows or news broadcasts, and the press, effectively conceptualise and reinforce Iran as the extreme 'other'. Van Dijk brings attention to the way in which 'the emphasis on culture and cultural differences has become the modern variant of racial differentiations of earlier western ideologies. Hence, racism is being transformed into ethnicism' (1991:26). Therefore ethnic or racial groups may not be inferiorised in relation to their colour but are deemed as 'backward' along other dimensions. By expelling negative traits onto distant others, the West is simultaneously fashioning its identity as the preferred alternative to that 'other'. Thus categorising Iran as superstitious, backward, authoritarian, and inferior asserts the superiority of the West as rational, innovative, and democratic. As Ferguson has noted, characteristics can transcend race and ethnicity, for example, to include those deemed as terrorists. Countries such as Iran may be dismissed as 'Other' by being given the label of a terrorist country. Carruthers highlights how, devoid of the 'necessary historical and political context' which might make sense of violent actions, terrorism often appears as 'little more than psychotic behaviour' (2000:192). She contends that the media, by exaggerating and elevating certain activities as a major threat, are serving to justify disproportionate state responses to terrorism.

As we have seen, media perceptions of the 'other' can change according to changes in social/political/economic climates. Negative stereotypes of Iranians are noted to have become established during the Hostage crisis of 1979. Ferguson states that:

... the self and the Other (the 'signifier' and the 'signified' in this relationship) are seldom singular or unitary and are likely to change places and relative ideological weight as identities are formed, adjusted or destroyed, and as power relationships are contextually or historically changed. (1998:81-2)

Many commentators have also noted that Islam is the principal candidate for replacing the West's old enemy, Communism. Iran is one of, if not the most, recognised Islamic states, therefore it would inevitably (whether justified or not) suffer from foreign ideological prejudice. Chomsky proposes that the end of the Cold War neccessitated new enemies, and those deemed as 'rogue states' were the viable alternative. With regard to the Middle East Chomsky claims 'the 'threat' is now conceded officially to be indigenous to the region'. He explains that:

The concept 'rogue state' is highly nuanced ...The criteria are fairly clear: a 'rogue state' is not simply a criminal state, but one that defies the orders of the powerful - who are, of course, exempt. (2000:48)

Islam in general, and Iran in particular, have been elevated to 'demon' status by western media. They are perceived as the bearers of fundamental evil, a threat to all 'fair' and 'democratic' societies. Naficy (1997:78) comments that '... the hostage taking episode was characterised more by a perception of Iran and Islam as threats to dominant ideology'. Sayyid argues further that the emergence of Islamism is presented as a threat precisely because it marks an erosion of Eurocentrism:

The logic of Islamism is not threatening because of the way in which Islamist forces are able to threaten mutually assured destruction, rather the logic of Islamism is threatening because it fails to recognise the universalism of the Western project. (1997:129)

There have been many instances noted within literature of the strategic use of the media influenced by the government. One only has to remember back to the 1998 World Cup to find evidence of strategic use of negative media coverage on Iran. The Iran-US game was manipulated into a political war by the media, particularly Press coverage, presumably spurred by the hostage episode which took place in 1979. Maybe the most blatant example being the film Not Without My Daughter (about an Iranian man deceiving, subordinating, violating and terrorising his innocent American wife) being shown in France immediately before the all important Iran versus US match regardless of its ban in Iran. Maybe this choice was influenced by the French Governments open hostility to the Iranian Government, after Khomeini turned his back on relations with France after leaving exile in Paris to return to Iran. When the Iranian coach, Talebie, was questioned about the political aspects surrounding the game he declined to comment with the reasoning that this was a game not a war, furthermore, he was a sports coach and not a politician and thus had no political comments to make about the match.

A particularly alarming example of the media's role as an ideological state-apparatus (utilising Althusser's term) is when media coverage of the killing of innocent Iranians was manipulated into a legitimate government action. In July 1988 an American warship, the USS Vincennes, shot down an Iranian civilian airliner. Detmer outlines the uncritical loyalty of the media to the government in reporting the tragedy when in fact it was a false cover story:

Mass media treatments of this event consisted of little more than the utterly uncritical passing along of the official US government explanation of the tragedy: that the Vincennes was in international waters at the time of the incident; that the airliner was not within the commercial air corridor at the time; and that the Iranian plane was heading at a high rate of speed directly for the Vincennes when it drew the Vincenne's fire. We now know that all of these claims are false. (1997:94)

Detmer qualifies that the biggest problem with this coverage was the failure of the media to present any information that would undermine the government's story or at least to suggest that it was dubious.

The prominent association between Iranians and terrorism is a clear example of the contradictory nature of Western media. Chomsky considers:

How is it possible for the media to continue to identify Iran...and other official enemies as the leading practitioners of international terrorism? The answer is simplicity itself ... Terrorism is terrorism only when conducted by official enemies; when the US and its clients are the agents, it is defence of democracy and human rights. (1989:277)

He qualifies that the US 'easily wins the prize for single acts of international terrorism in the peak year (1985) of the official plague. The US client state of Israel follows closely behind '(1989:271). In fact, as Said comments, 'the US has all the terror weapons known to humankind' and 'is the only country to have used a nuclear bomb on civilians' (2000:51). Schlesinger offers the contention that:

By turning a blind eye to the involvement of the liberal-democratic West in directly supporting or acquiescing in atrocities when convenient, 'terrorism' is laid at the door of the West's enemies, and seen as antithetical to the practice of the democratic state. (1991:61)

Carruthers points to the ambiguity prevalent in media reportage concerning terrorism. The term terrorist can be applied in partisan ways, she sums this up in the expression: 'one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter'. Carruthers explains:

The semantic war over words and definitions forms part of a wider ideological battle over the legitimacy of the resort to force: the label 'terrorist' connotes illegitimacy, while its alternatives - such as 'guerrilla', 'liberation army' or 'freedom fighter' - confer approbation. (2000:165)

Carruther goes on to explain that the definitions used say more about the reporter's stance towards a particular group than the precise nature of that group's activities. She brings attention to the contradictory nature of President Reagan's policy on terrorism. He elevated counter-terrorism as central to his foreign policy however the 'Irangate' hearings (whereby the US government secretly sold arms to Iran) demonstrated that this stance was 'less than absolute'.

What I am trying to uncover is not just over-reporting, such as exaggeration and distortion, of actual events, but also whether events involving a handful of Iranians are being used as a microcosm for the whole Iranian community, or even the one billion strong Muslim community. For example, Chris Searle (1989) illustrates how Press reportage of the Satanic Verses affair led us to believe that all Iranians, further all Muslims, held synonymous views to that of the Ayatollah Khomeini - to kill Salman Rushdie. Modood (1992:269) qualifies that in fact the anger against Satanic Verses 'had nothing to do with fundamentalism - or indeed Khomeini'. He argues that virtually every practising Muslim was offended by the book not because it criticised the faith, such literature is widespread, but by the fact that without any evidence it reduced ' their religion to a selfish sexual appetite'.

Since the 1979 Revolution, Iran may have been portrayed in a more negative fashion than many other Middle Eastern, or Islamic, countries, which is probably owing to the fact that Iran's government openly dissociates itself from the West and its ideology, even referring to the USA as 'the Great Satan'. But should government proclamations be used to stigmatise all Iranian people? According to Persian-speaking journalists who visited Iran soon after the revolution, the singer Googoosh was more popular than the preacher Khomeini. Campbell explains how associations between Iranians and terrorism lead to generalisation:

Especially since the taking of hostages in Iran in 1979, a predominant stereotype of Iranians has been that of the terrorist...this terrorist image is usually generalised by the viewer to include not only those people who actually commit acts of terrorism but virtually anyone of Persian or Arabic descent (1997:179).


I am going to look at British Press articles to investigate the way in which ideas about Iran are constructed. I aim to expose any evidence of misrepresentation within the articles, and the extent to which they promote Islamaphobia or Persephobia. I also wish to look for signs over time of a move towards a more culturally relativist perspective of Iran.

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Chapter 2: Methodology

Research methods

My research question is exploratory: How does the western media portray Iran? Robson (1997:42) proposes that 'the aim of exploratory research is to seek new insights usually through qualitative research'. I have used qualitative textual analysis as my main research method, choosing discourse analysis in particular. Content analysis was the other obvious method that I could have used, this quantitative method involves:

Establishing categories and then counting the number of instances when those categories are used in a particular item of text. (Silverman, 1997:59)

However I felt that the more refined, qualitative approach provided by discourse analysis would be more interesting for, and give more insight to, the ways in which the western media portrays Iran. Discourse analysis studies text in context; its focus is on how language is employed. The advantage of this approach is its special focus on relevant socio-political issues. Van Dijk reminds us that discourse analysis: Makes explicit the ways power abuse of dominant groups and its resulting inequality are enacted, expressed, legitimated, or challenged in or by discourse. (1993:96)

This is particularly relevant as my research has been guided by issues of how the West has constructed an image of Iran and whether this has changed according to changes in the social and political climate.

I have dissected one article each from four newspapers covering three major events. The events I chose usually had several days of coverage and many related articles within each newspaper, and it was not feasible to look over the sheer volume of related material. Therefore I limited my selection to the lead article per event, per newspaper. I decided to choose prominent events spanning three decades, so that I would be able to undertake comparative historical analysis. The dates chosen are 1979, 1989, and 1999. The reason for starting in 1979 was because it was a crucial year in Iran's political identity. In February 1979, Khomeini, a religious leader, took over the running of the country from the exiled Shah of Iran. Thus an ally of the West had been replaced by an overtly anti-western figure. I chose the following two years, 1989 and 1999, because I wanted to highlight change over time using historical-comparative analysis and the interval of a decade allowed for any attitude progression or stability. I focused on four national newspapers that covered a range of political orientations and target audiences, these were: The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, and The Mirror. The first two newspapers are broadsheet, the others are tabloid. The Daily Telegraph and The Mail are considered to be right wing whilst The Guardian and The Mirror are left wing (or left leaning). This will allow me to test Jensen et al's (1995:111) contention that right-wing papers are more likely to stereotype and discriminate against foreigners. Further The Daily Telegraph is considered conservative in its views whereas The Guardian is considered to hold liberal views; therefore it would be useful to compare their coverage. The Sun newspaper was often cited in texts which dealt with misrepresentation in the Press. Chris Searle, who devotes his book to racism in The Sun, emphasises, 'To say that the paper treats the culture of Asian and Islamic peoples with contempt would be putting the truth mildly' (1989:36). I therefore took the decision to omit The Sun from my research.

I chose to study news reports in the British Press because, as Jensen et al highlight,

Most of our social and political knowledge and beliefs about the world derive from the dozens of news reports we read or see every day. (1995:110)

They suggest that there is no other discursive practice, besides everyday conversation, that is engaged in so frequently and by so many people. Thus, the prominence of Press news reports in our lives justifies their interrogation. I looked at news reports, which are supposed to remain factual and objective, to find evidence of the kind of images being presented. I chose not to look at editorials, commentary, letters, and so forth, because they involve opinion. I also restricted myself to textual analysis and therefore ignored any photographs, cartoons and their accompanying captions.

I aimed to highlight evidence of the idea that news is manufactured in the West according to 'liberal-democratic' dominant ideology. I studied the mediated accounts of events in the Press in order to clarify their formal organisation, the principles upon which they were based, and the interests they were likely to serve. Through research of relevant background literature, the main points of focus within my analysis had been identified. I needed to look for evidence within western media articles of whether they present other cultures from a western framework. I also needed to highlight cultural relativism present in stories about Iran. I endeavoured to expose instances of binary representation, with the West and Iran presented as polar opposites, also essentialisation of Iran and its people to a few characteristics, and of naturalisation of these types of misrepresentation. Said's (1995) concept of Orientalism was kept in mind during analysis to see whether stories about Iran involve the same perspective, language and moral standpoint, or whether some articles transcended popular coverage. I referred to Ferguson's (1998:132) contention that 'media discourses have to be conceptualised as fluid and often contradictory', and searched for evidence to validate or dispute this hypothesis. Evidence of demonisation was exposed, for example, presentations of actors as 'beyond the pale', or, un-human. Islamaphobia was identified; such as, statements that are not just directed at the actions of the actors involved in the story, and inferences, or general condemnation of all Muslims. I also looked for evidence of 'semiotics', of what favoured reading applies, for example, if Iran is being portrayed as 'the villain' and the West as 'the hero'.

I adapted Van Dijk's (1991) summary of what he looked for in his study of racism in the British Press, since I thought this would also relate to coverage of Iran and its people:

i. Why is this topic newsworthy?

ii. Why does this topic or this information get so much (or so little) attention?

iii. Does this topic or this term challenge or maintain stereotypes or prejudices about minorities?

iv. Who are speaking and who are (or are not) allowed to give their opinion?

v. Whose interests are defended?

vi. From whose perspective is this report written?

vii. Is discrimination or racism denied, mitigated or trivialised?

Firstly I analysed headlines and lead sentences of all articles, because these signal main topics. Van Dijk asserts that, 'They define the overall situation and indicate to the reader a preferred overall meaning of the text' (1998:40). I then proceeded to look for the breakdown of information by paragraph to compare what information was left out, or included, by particular newspapers. This helped me to determine what events were given priority by each of the newspapers. Themes and patterns were identified during the analysis procedure. Jensen et al (1995:113) suggest that 'Topics conceptually summarise the text, and specify its most important information'. I proceeded to form a set of generalisations that could explain the themes and relationships identified in the data. I combined this with evidence of contradictions between papers, unfounded claims, inferences, implication, and so forth. Quotes were highlighted to convey which actors the newspapers chose to quote, and what perspectives these quotes gave.

Research design issues

As a researcher, I have a responsibility to be sensitive to social and ethical issues. My research involved analysis of secondary sources; all of the information that I required for analysis was available to an undergraduate researcher so I did not experience any access difficulties. I made use of Chronicles to pinpoint the major stories in each of the identified years. I then obtained most of my research material via microfilm at the British Newspaper Library. I used the Internet to obtain the 1999 articles, as these were readily available from archives on web sites.

I feel discourse analysis was a successful method, however it proved more time consuming and complex than I had expected, ideas being used or omitted through a trial and error process. Initially I was disheartened that I only collected two articles per newspaper due to the high costs of photocopying from microfilm. I assumed this was going to limit my analysis. However, during the analysis procedure I reduced this amount further, to one article per newspaper, as it would have exceeded the amount I could analyse in a project of this size. I had intended to find articles in all four papers in all three decades, but during the research process I found that the tabloids did not cover any of the major stories about Iran in 1999, even the prominent story of mass student protests. I decided I should continue to analyse the broadsheets for 1999, and then suggest why the tabloids failed to cover this event in my conclusion. Had my project been larger scale I would have included pictorial analysis to complement my textual analysis.

There is recognition by social scientists that researchers are not separate, objective observers. Researchers have their own prejudices in interpreting and documenting research. However, I feel my dual heritage helped me to analyse articles from a more culturally relative position. I aimed to minimise bias in my interpretation of findings. Reliability issues concern whether a research project can be replicated under similar conditions. Silverman (1997:10) proposes that '"Authenticity" rather than reliability is often the issue in qualitative research'. Through time limitations, I had to select what I perceived to be the stronger findings from my analysis, and this may vary from another researcher's perspective. Another concern is the issue of validity. Denscombe (1998:241) proposes the idea of validity 'hinges around the extent to which research data and the methods for obtaining the data are deemed accurate, honest, and on target'. I feel my account accurately represents the newspaper articles to which I refer and is therefore adequate for making statements about them. However, I am careful not to suggest that I can make generalisations from my research. My research findings and conclusion accurately reflect the ten articles I analysed, but may not represent the newspapers' perspectives as a whole. I originally wanted to look for progression of stories to see if they spiral over time and become increasingly sensationalised. This would have increased the validity of my research, however, due to time, costs, and scale of my project, I could not develop my research as much as I had intended. Thus, I maintain that my work is insightful and valid, but it is a modest contribution to the field of media representations.

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Chapter 3: Analysis


In the following analysis, I focus on three important events in Iranian politics: the occupation of the U.S. embassy in Tehran (1979), the publication of Salman Rushdie's novel 'The Satanic Verses' (1989), and the student protests in Tehran (1999). For each of the three events, I examine one article from each of the four newspapers (The Daily Mail, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, and The Mirror).

The headlines and lead sentences of the articles are analysed ahead of the main body.

Event analysis 1: Hostage Crisis 1979


On the 4th November 1979, Iranian students took U.S. embassy employees hostage in Tehran, to demand the return of the Shah from America for trial. The fifty-two hostages were released, safe and physically well, on 20th January 1981. I have chosen to focus on the lead articles from Monday 5th November that convey the first reactions to the take over.

Headlines and leads

The Daily Mail

Ayatollah's students seize US embassy


A mob of students stormed the American embassy in Tehran yesterday and seized up to 100 hostages.

The Mirror


A furious mob of students stormed the American embassy in Tehran yesterday and seized 100 hostages

The Daily Telegraph

Women among hostages held after Marines fail to stop take-over


Four hundred students stormed the American embassy in Tehran yesterday and seized up to 100 hostages. The students said they would not release the hostages, who include women and United States Marines, until the deposed Shah is sent back to Iran from his hospital bed in New York.

The Guardian


Several hundred Iranian students yesterday occupied the US embassy in central Tehran, taking up to 100 hostages, including US diplomatic staff, and Marine guards in an assault that appears to have left the Government nonplussed.

There is use of 'loaded' terms, for example 'furious' and 'revenge'. The Daily Mail, The Mirror and The Daily Telegraph use similar language, in some places identical: "mob", "stormed" and "seized". The use of 'mob' instead of 'crowd' means they are being evaluated in terms of irrationality and lack of control. The Guardian opts for more neutral language; it puts a name to the actors and in doing so humanizes them and their actions.

The Guardian explains how, at a press conference in Tehran, a spokesman for the students described them as 'Moslems without political party affiliations'. Both The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph describe the hostage takers as Ayatollah Khomeini's students. Aside from not stating that the students distanced themselves from the government, this is as valid as someone describing Italian Catholic hostage takers as 'the Pope's students'. There is no evidence to support the notion that Khomeini tutored these students and The Guardian's account discredits The Daily Mail and Telegraph's claim of their affiliations with Khomeini. The Guardian, on the contrary, suggests that the take over may be an independent action by describing it as leaving 'the government nonplussed'.

Main articles

Government endorsement?

There are significant discrepancies between the newspapers on whether the Iranian Government endorsed the embassy take over. The Daily Mail states that

The occupation of the embassy had the personal support of Iran's revolutionary leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, according to a spokesman for him.

It is not till the end of the sentence that we learn that this is a spokesman's account; on first inspection, we read the statement as fact. The Mirror does not explicitly claim that the Government endorsed the take over, however they do so indirectly when reporting that an independent Muslim group gave support on state radio. We have already seen that in The Daily Telegraph the hostage takers are initially referred to as 'Khomeini's students'. This implies that Khomeini and, by extension, the government had a lead role in their actions. However, later in the report we are told

... despite [Khomeini's] anti-American speeches, he has at no one time asked the students to take over the embassy.

As we have seen, The Guardian's article includes the student's self-definition as 'Moslems without political party affiliations'. It asserts that the government has made no formal statement on the affair and that the students have denied having any contact with the Government. It does not directly implicate the Government; however, it does infer the possibility of government involvement by speculating on unconfirmed reports of approval by aides of the Ayatollah.

Fuelling the controversy

All the newspapers devote considerable space to quoting the Ayatollah Khomeini. The anti-western and extravagant views of Khomeini are well established and known by these journalists. Popular Khomeini quotes are those saying he hopes that the Shah has cancer, and that he condemns Britain for giving asylum to the Shah's Premier, Bakhtiar. Britain has become a target 'for his wrath' according to The Daily Mail. Another source used by The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, to exemplify Iranian bloodthirsty nature, is Khalkali, a revolutionary court judge, who called for American-Iranians to drag the Shah out of hospital and kill/dismember him. This serves, along with other carefully selected quotes, to further demonise Iranians.

The Daily Mail casts doubt over the words of the Muslim Student Society: 'It claimed that the embassy was "a centre for espionage"'. The Daily Telegraph also questions the student spokesman who 'claimed' the Americans had destroyed sensitive material on their arrival. The use of 'claimed' in both cases implies belief-suspension by the journalist. There may be good reason for the papers to doubt the students, as to accept the accusation of espionage would give a degree of justification for the take over and also incriminates Britain's ally - the U.S. Descriptions of events that may imply negative properties of the West are seen as controversial and marked with expressions of distance or doubt.

The Daily Telegraph informs us how

In the early evening, several hundred students put down rugs in the embassy grounds, faced Mecca and prayed.

The detail of the religion of the hostage takers is used within the articles as though it holds some significance. This detail may be included for ironic effect, to ridicule their faith: they are hostage takers and devout Muslims. Firstly, an overwhelming majority of Iranians are Muslim so distinguishing them as such seems unnecessary. Secondly, their religion evidently plays no part in their actions - all the reports declare the motive for the take over was to ensure the return of the Shah to stand trial. The use of Muslim is employed to give their actions a religious dimension; their religion is being implicated along with their actions. As the Runnymede Trust (1997) have pointed out, closed views of Islam may use an isolated incident involving Muslims as an illustrative example to condemn the whole faith.

We can see that The Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and, to a lesser extent, The Mirror are particularly fond of value-laden terms. Conversely, The Guardian refrains from using such loaded language. Rather The Guardian opts for a more neutral term, take over, to describe the events.

Event analysis 2: Rushdie Affair 1989


On the 14th February 1989, Khomeini, the religious leader of Iran, announced a death sentence (fatwa) on Salman Rushdie and called on Muslims to carry out the decree. Salman Rushdie is the author of The Satanic Verses; this publication includes references to the Islamic faith that many people regard as blasphemous. The next day another Iranian cleric added fuel to the controversial fatwa by offering a large bounty to the potential assassin, differing in amount for Iranians and non-Iranians. Rushdie never confronted any assassination attempts. The reviewed articles are from the 16th February; they convey reactions at what may be regarded as the height of the Rushdie controversy.

Headlines and leads

The Daily Mail

Million-Dollar bounty as author Rushdie goes into hiding


A million-Dollar bounty was placed on the head of author Salman Rushdie last night as the furore over his novel The Satanic Verses echoed around the world.

The Mirror


An amazing reward of £1 1/2 million was offered by a mad mullah last night to any Iranian who kills British author Salman Rushdie.

The Daily Telegraph


Iran yesterday offered a reward of $1 million to any non-Iranian who carries out the "execution order" of the Ayatollah Khomeini against the Indian-born author of The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie.

The Guardian

Iran suspected of Lockerbie bomb - Tehran crowd attacks British embassy - $1 million price on Salman Rushdie's head


Britain's relations with Iran were hanging in the balance last night, with crowds again chanting "Death to Britain" outside the recently reopened British embassy in Tehran.

The Mirror makes use of alliteration: 'mad mullah', which is intended to ridicule. The Daily Mail's headline is emotive - using shock tactics for effect, obviously aiming for a big impact. The Daily Mail goes on to describe the Rushdie affair as a 'furore', denoting an irrational state of affairs. However some would argue that demonstrations against a blasphemous book by passionate Muslims is a rational course of behaviour.

Like The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph implicates Iran as having offered the bounty, for example, 'Iran yesterday offered a reward of $1 million'. A more accurate presentation would be to replace 'Iran' with 'Sanei' (the man who made the offer). It could not even be argued on the lines that a country must be held accountable for what its ruler states; Khomeini was not involved with the offer of bounty. The actions of one man have thus been personified into a country of 66.8 million, helping to demonise and incriminate Iranians as a monolithic entity holding synonymous bloodthirsty views.

The Guardian's headline does not focus on the fatwa, its overhead captions serve to collate three incriminating events involving 'Iran': involvement in the Lockerbie crash, attacks on the British Embassy in Tehran, and the price of Rushdie's bounty. Its lead outlines the demonstrations outside the British Embassy, reports on the deteriorating UK-Iran relations and the emotive, though symbolic, chanting of "Death to Britain".

Main article

External Threat

A striking discrepancy between the articles is the mix of speculation, certainty and omission of the idea of an external threat - a 'hit squad'. The Daily Mail says Rushdie is under protection as:

Experts believed at least one Iranian hit team might already be on Rushdie's trail. A sleeper unit of fanatics has probably been activated.

It also quotes the British Foreign Secretary justifying the maintenance of diplomatic relations for 'the safety' of the 'people of our country'. In other words, UK-Iran relations are necessary since otherwise Iran will jeopardise Britons' safety.

The Daily Telegraph reports an incident previous to the declaration of the fatwa where an American Muslim travelled to London to find and kill Rushdie. The Mirror, in continuation of the theme of outside agitators, sensationalising the plot even more, reports that the same expert,

... said yesterday that a "sleeper" unit of fanatical Moslem hit men was already in Britain [...and...] he said Rushdie might need plastic surgery and a completely new identity to escape from the Moslem hit squad.

What was speculation has turned into a reality in which Rushdie is advised to take drastic measures. Incidentally, these death squads never materialised. The outside agitators, in The Daily Mail, The Mirror and The Daily Telegraph, are described as Iranian, Muslim, and fanatic, and these terms are used interchangeably - even within the same article. This suggests that all three descriptions are being evaluated as homogeneous. Perhaps the idea that these terms are non-western helps to justify their homogenisation because they have all been conceptualised as 'other'. As Hall (1992:280) proposes, the West/Rest discourse simply divides the world into two, and supposes each side is united by their fundamental difference to the other.

West vs. Rest

All the papers take the opportunity to elevate 'western values' and democracy. Hall (1992:318) emphasises that a modified version of the discourse of the West/Rest has made a significant contribution towards contemporary languages of ethnic superiority. The Daily Mail, Mirror and The Daily Telegraph quote Viking (the publishers of The Satanic Verses) for this purpose. The Daily Telegraph states how 'In a move to defuse the row', Viking 'issued a statement regretting the distress the book had caused Moslems'. In this way the perpetrators of the 'row' are now seen as making concessions. The Viking quote is extended in The Daily Mail, it reads:

Our publication of The Satanic Verses, a highly imaginative work of fiction by one of the world's leading writers, rests upon the principle of freedom of expression which is the cornerstone of democracy.

This is much more than an 'apology'. It uses the crucial ideological notion of 'freedom', associated with the western world, and elevates the notion of democracy. Further it emphasises the virtues of the book and its author - does the fact that Rushdie is 'one of the world's leading authors' justify the publication of a highly offensive book? Furthermore, The Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph put the word blasphemous in quotation marks. The book, amongst other things, portrays Prophet Mohammed's wives as prostitutes, so why should the label of blasphemous be considered controversial?

The Daily Mail, The Mirror, and The Daily Telegraph all report that a delegation of writers went to Downing Street to hand a letter to the PM, protesting about the fatwa, which The Daily Mail quotes:

We defend their [Rushdie's and Viking's] right to freedom of expression and stand in solidarity with them against state-incited acts of terrorism and all other forms of intimidation.

In this extract we see the notion of freedom being emphasised again and Iran being associated with terrorism. The Daily Telegraph quotes one writer as saying, 'It is an intolerable and barbaric state of affairs' and he proceeds to demand that the Government confront Iran and remind British Muslims that incitement to murder is against the law. Explicitly associating Muslims/Iranians with barbarism is a long established tactic used by westerners against the non-West (the binary opposition between civilised and barbaric). Moreover he implicates all British Muslims as potential assassins. The Mirror quotes another writer as saying 'These people are complete nutters'. We can only deduct that this superfluous sound bite is left in to demonise 'these' people, whether he means Muslims or Iranians.

The Daily Mail includes a quote from the British Foreign Secretary about Iran's actions, as follows:

It illustrates the extreme difficulty of establishing the right kind of relationship with a manifestly revolutionary regime with ideas that are very much its own.

We need to consider which ideas Iran should employ - western ideas maybe? Is this an instance of ethnocentrism? Is there no space for a politics that does not emulate the western model?

The Guardian does not discuss a threat of outside agitators, though it does take the opportunity to vilify Iran. The Guardian states 'there is only a fine line between terrorist acts and the menace in Tehran's threats against Mr Rushdie'. The fatwa is not promoting indiscriminate violence to further political aims, so can it be classified as terrorism? The fact that The Daily Mail and Mirror choose to quote a researcher from the Institute for the Study of Terrorism confirms to the reader how they classify the fatwa. The Guardian outlines how the Israeli Foreign Minister and British Foreign Secretary 'discussed their implacable determination to resist terrorism'. This statement seems to suggest that terrorism is antithetical to the practices of these states, despite vast evidence to the contrary. As Chomsky maintains: 'Terrorism is terrorism only when conducted by official enemies' (1989:277). They are establishing Britain and Israel as binary opposites to Iran and its illegitimate activities.

Internal threat

The Daily Telegraph devotes considerable space to the disapproval and dissociation of Christian leaders on the state of affairs, presumably to reinforce the idea that 'we' are more civilised. Conversely, no Muslim leaders with objections to fatwa are given the opportunity to voice them. Abbas' (2000:64) ideas are relevant here. He contends that the representation of Muslims in a negative light helps legitimise existing power structures and serves as propaganda in the long battle between Christianity and Islam. The first quote is from a Vatican spokesman who states that the Pope will not get involved in supporting the Muslim campaign. The Daily Telegraph then outlines the Anglican Bishop of Bradford's response to the situation (which is in sharp contrast to a Muslim leader of Bradford's response):

The Anglican Bishop of Bradford called for an emergency meeting of leaders from all religions to try to defuse what was described as the potentially explosive mood of Moslems.

Interestingly the use of the metaphoric language 'explosive' connotes images of bombs, maybe this another attempt to associate Muslims with terrorism. Reactions from Muslim leaders in The Daily Mail, The Mirror and The Daily Telegraph are restricted to two actors who both support the fatwa. The Muslim leaders, Mr Quddas and Mr Ansari, are used as examples in a debate about deportation to which a considerable proportion of The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph articles are devoted. There is a notion of 'obey our law or go home British Muslims'. Hall (1997) has noted that non-white populations are typically projected in western discourse as the undesirable 'other'. Thus Muslims who are established British citizens are suddenly assumed to belong elsewhere.

The Mirror and The Guardian articles avoid the repatriation theme. The Guardian also excludes any reference to either Muslim or Christian reactions.

The Daily Mail implies the possible threat from internal Muslim communities:

Bradford, home to 60,000 Moslems, has seen bitter protest over the book with several copies burned in public.

We need to ask for what reason this information is included in the report - is it so readers can draw a parallel between the book-burning and potential assassins?


The Guardian has a different focus from the rest of the papers. It looks at UK-Iran relations, drawing on external events such as Iran's alleged involvement in the Lockerbie crash, the holding of hostages in Lebanon (by the Lebanese), and on the sentencing of Roger Cooper, a British businessman, for espionage. These captions compound the idea of Iran as lawless, unpredictable and irrational, they indicate the position of the rest of the article. The Guardian systematically focuses on real and alleged negative properties of Iran. The Daily Mail, Mirror and Daily Telegraph also add supporting incriminating events, but The Guardian is the only paper to launch a full-scale attack on Iran.The use of 'Moslem', although expected given the topic, is interesting when we consider the negative way in which Muslims are being referred to, especially in The Daily Mail, Mirror and Daily Telegraph, who show the highest references to the faith. The Guardian is the only paper to omit any notion of an external hit squad. The Daily Mail and Mirror make use of the word fanatic, perhaps this extreme label indicates the sensationalised position of their articles.

Event analysis 3: Student Protests 1999


Mass student protests calling for greater democracy in Iran began on the 10th of July 1999 and reached a coverage climax by the 14th of July. During this time there was media speculation on the scale and significance of the protests, however the students did not succeed in establishing their political objectives. I have looked at articles on the 14th to determine the newspapers' perspectives at the height of the demonstrations.

Headlines and leads

Daily Telegraph


The students protesting in Tehran yesterday borrowed some of the slogans from the uprising against the Shah 20 years ago.

The Guardian


Hardline vigilantes backed by secret police opened fire on the pro-democracy demonstrators who were rampaging through Tehran yesterday in the worst street violence since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The Daily Mail and The Mirror failed to include any coverage surrounding the student protests, perhaps because they were considered too external, for their audience's interest, or because they did not allow for Iranian actions to be sensationalised.

The Daily Telegraph sees criticism of the President's power as its focus. It accuses Khatami, the President, of 'impotence'. The entire evaluation of Khatami by The Daily Telegraph is signalled in the headline and may guide perceptions within the remaining article.

The lead sentence of The Daily Telegraph implies that there is a parallel between these protests and those during the 1979 revolution. The Guardian also parallels the violence with that of the 1979 revolution. Perhaps both papers are indicating that they anticipate another revolution judging by the dynamics of the current state of affairs. The fact that the demonstrators are pro-democracy would signal to us that the British press would tend to valorise them to an extent, as Britain is held to be a democratic country.

The Guardian makes the story of an armed attack by police on protestors its focal point. By placing the police at the start of the headline, rather than in a passive sentence such as 'protesters shot by police' or vagueness, such as 'protesters in gunfire', The Guardian directly conveys who it believes is to blame. The subheading states Khatami's position on the protest without judging it. The lead sentence vilifies the attackers. 'Hardline' is a commonly used word in reference to Iranian religious authorities. The conservative religious establishment is generally anti-western and anti-democracy and its views are often represented in the British press as 'hardline', rather than, for instance, 'extremist'. 'Vigilante' conjures notions of illegitimacy and an ill-ordered community. The use of these two words immediately alerts us to the journalist's perspective on the actors' activities; they implicate the government by stating these actors are 'backed by the secret police'. Thus illegitimate attackers are being supported by state instituted organisations, this indicates that the journalist views the nature of the Iranian state as corrupt.

Main article

Undermining Government

The Daily Telegraph associates Khatami with the former Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, and adds 'it is a distressing thought'. From past knowledge of The Daily Telegraph coverage towards Communism, and right-wing conservative views on communism generally, we may conclude that the journalist is trying to discredit and demonise the Iranian President.

The Guardian does not mount a full-scale attack on the President but subtle use of language indicates their perspective on his handling of the protests, for instance describing him as having 'turned his back' on the protesters. The Guardian's target of vilification is the armed forces and vigilantes who are implicated as state-authorised aggressors. It provides detailed descriptions of violence, shootings, and beatings by the police. The fact that the students being fired at are 'unarmed' is outlined, and reports of students being killed are also mentioned. The fact that the conservative religious leader sanctions the violence committed by these authorities is also reported:

The police, intelligence agencies and the armed forces are officially under the control of Iran's supreme leader, the cleric Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rather than the President.

The Guardian includes many implicit and explicit references to the conservative religious government being corrupt, and dissociates Khatami from its ideas: 'The students, expressing a widespread belief that Iran's law enforcement agencies have run amok, had put pressure on Mr Khatami to take a stand.' They also associate Khatami with pro-democracy activities when describing the leading reformist newspaper Salam as 'one of Mr Khatami's backer[s] and a symbol of democracy and freedom to many students.'

The Daily Telegraph quotes a 'western diplomat' as saying the mullahs would prefer to follow a Chinese rather than Soviet model of reform. It then goes on to outline the atrocities attributed to the Chinese government against its students. He asserts that 'this is not to say the mullahs are equally bloodthirsty'. If this is so, then why outline the devastation that occurred in China? Furthermore, to say that they are not 'equally' bloodthirsty actually indicates that they are bloodthirsty to some extent. The diplomat's quote ends on unfounded authoritative speculation, 'By refusing to give in to student demands ... the Mullahs have indicated that they prefer the Chinese option'. Rather than detailing actual activities of the conservative clerics, The Daily Telegraph has decided to speculate from a western opinion that draws on an abstract comparison.

The Daily Telegraph speculates:

The hardliners decided that last week would be a watershed for the Khatami reforms. The signal was the passing by the parliament on Wednesday of a law designed to curb the press.

It also talks of 'in their eyes' when describing the perspective of the Basij (voluntary aggressors), another example of speculation represented as fact.

The Guardian launches a direct attack on the conservative religious governors; it does not implicate all Iranians, or even President Khatami. Its target is well defined. The journalist also goes a step further by giving a voice to the opinion of Iranian citizens. The Guardian highlights the fact that residents are joining the students, and similar demonstrations are happening in eight other towns, illustrating the wide scale consensus forming amongst ordinary Iranians. This presentation of the people's voice is unique amongst all coverage of the three events. It takes care to differentiate their views from those of the conservative clergy:

... public opinion appears to be firmly behind the pro-democracy movement.

Most Iranians believe that...

The students, expressing widespread belief...

The Guardian identifies the students as pro-democratic; The Daily Telegraph describes the elections as 'western-style'. The Daily Telegraph is therefore explicitly elevating democratic values as 'western', whilst The Guardian does not assume democracy to be exclusively western.

Whilst both papers make reference to the illegitimate attackers, there is divergence on the number of references to police actions. The Daily Telegraph is a conservative paper and conservative views elevate law and order. Perhaps the pro-authority stance of The Daily Telegraph means it has refrained from implicating the police as the instigators of the attacks.

Analysis Conclusion

The Daily Mail and The Mirror have tended to use emotive language, loaded words, and focus upon the more sensational aspects of events. The fact that neither of them provided coverage for the protests in 1999 speaks for itself. Ordinary Iranians who oppose Government policies were not deemed significant enough to report on. As Van Dijk (1991:103) has pointed out, different cultures are usually perceived as newsworthy when they can be defined as problematic and as an illustration of stereotypes and prejudices.

Irrelevant detail has been included in some articles, for example, in 1979, The Daily Telegraph and The Mirror bring the religion of the hostage takers into play. This may function to give a more general negative portrayal of Iranians/Muslims.

The Daily Mail, The Mirror, and The Daily Telegraph demonstrate surprising coherence in their coverage. The same arguments, quotes, inferences, and language are apparent, despite having distinct authors across the newspapers. For example, the use of 'mob', 'stormed' and 'seized' fits the ideological stance of all three newspapers. This suggests that a very powerful ideology is at work which is routinely being applied to the 'other'. Certain understandings and perspectives are being privileged.

The Guardian has tended not to follow the positions of these other newspapers. In 1979 its article was relatively neutral by comparison. In 1989, by contrast, it extends the idea of Iranians as demonic further than the other three newspapers by drawing on a range of incriminating events to support this perspective. In 1999, The Guardian validates the student's protests whereas The Daily Telegraph remains neutral. From this we can see that The Guardian has a particularly fluid notion of Iran over the three decade period, from neutral, to malevolent, and finally verging on benevolent.

The Mirror and The Guardian are particularly significant by their detachment from the idea of deportation, which was prominently featured by The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph in 1989. This may show that although The Mirror has tended to convey the same moral standpoints as The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, on a politically controversial point it sides with its left-leaning counterpart.

These findings show the different perspectives between newspapers and between decades, however conclusions may only be drawn about the articles used in this research. My findings are specific; the research sample should be further extended in order to generalise. The findings do, however, relate to previous contentions from my literature review. We have seen that the tabloids use more sensationalist and emotive topics and terms. There have been marked divergences between the conservative right-wing perspective of The Daily Telegraph and the more tolerant liberal views of The Guardian articles. My findings display that what may initially be perceived as neutral coverage can, under closer examination, prove to be saturated with bias themes that help to construct the subject in a specific way.

My findings demonstrate the existence of biased reporting, thus further large scale and intensive research is needed to substantiate or dispute some of the initial themes and perspectives that have emerged from this project, which is just a small contribution to the study of the phenomenon of western media portrayal of Iran.

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Chapter 4: Conclusion

My research project has aimed to find evidence of how the western media portrays Iran.


In 1989 all of the papers elevate 'western' values of 'freedom' and 'democracy'. The Daily Mail, The Mirror, and The Daily Telegraph quote Viking for this reason, and, in The Daily Telegraph Christian leaders are given a platform to criticise the fatwa and bounty, whilst non-extremist Muslim perspectives are silenced. This creates an overall image of a civilised West as opposed to an irrational 'other'. Democracy is valorised by The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian in 1999. The Guardian undermines the conservative Government's legitimacy, The Daily Telegraph undermines both the conservative and reformist factions.


As Greenslade (2000) has suggested, a host of techniques are being employed, such as selective reporting, distortion, hyperbole, and factual omission. This has helped manipulate Iran into a 'foreign monster' - posing a threat to British culture and people.=

In 1999, The Guardian refrained from homogenizing Iranians and Conservative religious politics. Significantly, it has conveyed the diversity and internal debate amongst the conservative clergy, reformist politicians, and the wider public. Though The Guardian has generally adopted a different perspective from the other newspapers, it does not necessarily oppose vilification of Iran. It may reflect more liberal views, but it also reflects dominant positions, rather than acting as a counter-ideology.

Binary representation and stereotypes

There is a recurrent notion of what Hall (1992) has described as the West/Rest discourse. There is a strong notion of cultural difference, the major perspective has been 'us' versus 'them'. Iran and Islam are repeatedly portrayed as the antithesis of the West. In 1989, The Daily Mail, The Mirror, and The Daily Telegraph use the terms Iranian, Muslim, and fanatic interchangeably which connotes internal sameness. The articles typically contrast the negative properties of the 'other' with the positive properties of 'us', for instance presenting the British as tolerant and the Iranians as intolerant. This is demonstrated by the use of Viking's quote by The Daily Mail, The Mirror and The Daily Telegraph. During the Rushdie controversy, the target group for vilification became the entire Muslim 'community'. The affair was represented as a fundamental opposition between 'western', liberal values of freedom of expression and fanatical Muslim intolerance and threats.


In 1999, The Daily Telegraph has presumed democratic elections are exclusively western, despite the fact that they have been practised in Iran.

The Guardian has shown evidence of a move towards a more culturally relativist perspective on events in 1999. It takes care not to homogenize civilians as sharing the same politics as the religious leaders. It emphasises the corrupt nature of the conservative government, whilst elevating the reformist cause and presenting the consensus of Iranian opinion.


Iranian quotes in 1979 all convey the same perspective of Iranians as irrational and bloodthirsty. In 1989 The Guardian launches a broad attack on real and alleged criminal events involving Iran. In 1999 the Conservative government is discredited by both The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian. The Daily Telegraph also associates the reformist President with communism, thus using an old 'demon' to implicate a new 'demon'.

Iranian culture is being demonised, ridiculed and distanced throughout the articles. These understandings have been privileged. Conversely when a British actor is deemed to have acted in a negative way, it is played down, for example doubting the blasphemous content of The Satanic Verses. Vilification of Iran is consistent in The Daily Mail, The Mirror, and The Daily Telegraph. The Guardian has demonstrated a more balanced stance, except in its 1989 article. The Rushdie affair occurred during what may be considered as the height of Islamaphobia in Britain - the peak year of the Islamic threat - which may explain why The Guardian's article is more malevolent than in other years. The Guardian may be reflecting this time of immense hostility toward Islam; its negative perspective and language illustrate this.


In 1979, Islam is ridiculed by The Daily Telegraph. In 1989 The Daily Mail, The Mirror, and The Daily Telegraph anticipate a Muslim hit squad to assassinate Rushdie. The assassination threat was used as an opportunity to incriminate all Muslims. They assumed homogeneity between Muslims, Iranians and fanatics. Aside from the notion of an external threat, British Muslims were assumed to pose an internal threat, and this enabled The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mail to bring deportation issues to the foreground.

Islam is being seen as monolithic, inferior, and an enemy. Muslim criticism of the West is rejected, Rushdie's book is defended as freedom of expression. However, the Muslims are not attributed the same right to freedom of expression when they protest about the publication. Rather their protests are used to help perpetuate a stereotype of Muslims as intolerant.


The Daily Mail, The Mirror and The Daily Telegraph ensure they emphasise the threat posed by the hostage takers in 1979. In 1989, they also incriminate Iranians as being an external threat liable to send a hit squad to Britain. The Guardian labels Iran as a threat with regards to its terrorist tendencies. The Guardian's main accusation of Iran's involvement in the Lockerbie crash was unfounded, nevertheless it helped to feed pre-existing sterotypes. As we have seen, in 1999 The Daily Telegraph associates Iran with the West's 'old' enemy - communism. In 1979 the notion of a student-Government conspiracy to occupy the U.S. embassy, used in The Daily Mail, The Mirror, and The Daily Telegraph, serves to unify the peoples' and Governments' views. In 1989 the idea of Iran as a monolithic entity is used again by The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, by presenting the whole nation as having offered a price for 'Rushdie's head'.


Jensen et al's contention that right-wing papers are more likely to stereotype and discriminate against foreigners has been confirmed with respect to the articles surveyed, however The Mirror (left-wing) also demonstrates this perspective to almost the same extent.

Although The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph emulate much of the same perspective, the former tends to sensationalise its reports whilst the latter often uses more sophisticated and subtle ways of conveying such views. The Mirror uses similar perspectives, though diverging on politically loaded concepts such as deportation.

The Guardian has used quite distinct perspectives and language from the other newspapers. It could be seen as a less biased alternative, as Van Dijk (1991) notes, the Press may reflect conflicting interests or even 'speak for the people'. Yet it remains subject to much of the criticisms of the other newspaper's to a varying extent.

The overall themes that emerged from the findings agree with the ideas presented in past research. There is no notable positive progression over the three decades. The Daily Mail, The Mirror, and The Daily Telegraph have proved fairly consistent in reporting from a certain perspective. The Guardian has had a more erratic perspective than the other three. Coverage by The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian is less malevolent in 1999, however this may reflect the fact that events in 1999 were less controversial as a whole.

I do not propose that my research project will give profound insight into the complex and diverse phenomenon being investigated. My project shows significant evidence to suggest that ideology and judgements are at play within these newspapers, however much work is needed to apply a reliable general conclusion to their perspectives. However, within my time and financial constraints, I have endeavoured to produce a comprehensive and insightful project.

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