Persephobia and the press
By Genevieve New
August 21, 2001
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
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
* Chapter 1
-- The Press
* Chapter 2
-- Research Methods
-- Research Design Issues
* Chapter 3
-- Event analysis 1
-- Headlines and Leads
-- Main articles
-- Event analysis 2
-- Headlines and Leads
-- Main articles
-- Event analysis 3
-- Headlines and Leads
-- Main articles
* Chapter 4
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.
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
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
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
In short, the discourse, as a 'system of representation', represents
the world as divided according to a simple dichotomy - the West/the Rest.
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)
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.
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
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.
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'
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
Chapter 2: Methodology
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
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)
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.
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
HOSTAGES OF REVENGE
A mob of students stormed the American embassy in Tehran yesterday and
seized up to 100 hostages.
100 HELD AT EMBASSY
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
MOB STORMS US EMBASSY - 'SEND US THE SHAH' CALL BY KHOMEINI STUDENTS
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.
IRANIAN STUDENTS TAKE OVER EMBASSY
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
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
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
There are significant discrepancies between the newspapers on whether
the Iranian Government endorsed the embassy take over. The Daily Mail states
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
IRAN: WE'LL PAY FOR HIS DEATH
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
£1,500,000 TO KILL HIM - BY ORDER OF THE MAD MULLAH
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
$3 MILLION IRAN PRICE ON RUSHDIE'S HEAD
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.
Iran suspected of Lockerbie bomb - Tehran crowd attacks British embassy
- $1 million price on Salman Rushdie's head
RELATIONS WITH IRAN IN BALANCE
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
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".
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.
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
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
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
PROTESTS MERELY UNDERLINE PRESIDENT'S IMPOTENCE
The students protesting in Tehran yesterday borrowed some of the slogans
from the uprising against the Shah 20 years ago.
IRANIAN POLICE OPEN FIRE ON PROTESTERS - PRESIDENT KHATAMI CONDEMNS
STUDENT DEMONSTRATORS AS PRO-DEMOCRACY RIOTS ROCK TEHRAN
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
Chapter 4: Conclusion
My research project has aimed to find evidence of how the western media
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
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
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