Bring Back Conspiracy (BBC)
Questions of independence, intent and accuracy
By Mina Pejman
February 5, 2004
As the 25th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution
is nearly upon us, it is fair to ask: How independent really is
the BBC from
the governmental and other influences?
Barely a year had passed since the establishment of the Islamic
regime in Iran, that at the invitation of a friend, I attended
a lecture in London, on the History of the BBC's Persian
Service. The talk was given by the then Head of the BBC's
Overseas Service, and was hosted by the Iran Society (formerly
Persia Society), an old Anglo-Iranian club established to promote
the cultural ties between the two countries.
were mostly the retired executives from the AIOC, Foreign Office
or the British Council who had some past or present connexions
with Iran. An honorary member who traditionally had to chair the
meetings was the serving Iranian Ambassador. Needless to say that
his seat was vacant!
The Speaker, using taped and disc-scratched recordings
gave a vocal and very interesting history of the Persian Service's
from its inception in the late 1930's through to the war
years and scantily covered the early to mid seventies periods.
The emphasis of the talk was on the educational and cultural programmes
of the Persian Service and mildly touched the political and analytical
There were a few exceptions. The Speaker claimed
that the Persian service was primarily set up to counter act the
influence of their German counter-part which was a Nazi propaganda
tool. The BBC's legendary war correspondent, Richard Dimbleby,
had one of his early postings in Iran, just in time to report the
abdication of the King, Reza Shah and the ascent of the Crown Prince,
Mohammad Reza Shah to the throne.
Here, the Speaker suggested,
"thanks to the accurate reporting of the BBC's Persian Service,
people of Iran learned the truth about their monarch (and his pro-German
sympathies) and forced him to abdicate and into exile", a
point that enraged a number of former regime's politicians
and executives who were among the audience.
The talk was rather
abruptly terminated when the Speaker covered the period of the
early to mid-seventies (with no reference to the Islamic Revolution)
and offered to answer the question from the floor.
The first to ask a question was a dignified looking
gentleman whom I recognised as a former member of the Parliament.
to the offensive tone used by the Speaker in reference to Reza
Shah and demanded an apology. One can understand that with the
Pahlavi regime already removed and the mullah's fairly entrenched,
the BBC manager had no reason to feel threatened by an audience
of ex-officials and made no amends.
A few Iranian members of the
audience, mainly in their late sixties or seventies stood up and
walked out in protest. The rest, my friend and I included, had
either questions to ask or were keen to follow the debates.
oil and petrochemical chief asked why there was no coverage of
the period leading to the Islamic Revolution. The Speaker replied
that as the issue was still very current and due to the political
sensitivities of the matter, he did not see it as suitable!
oil executive who was British educated and spoke fluent English
was not to be fobbed off that easily. He put to the Speaker that
using simple but clever wording of their reports, the BBC could
(inadvertently) direct tens of thousands of its listeners to
the venues where the protest gatherings were likely to happen.
a plausible example:
"... Reports coming from unconfirmed sources
indicate that a huge anti-Shah demonstration is going to be
held in Tehran on Friday. The rally,
which is in protest to the recent shootings in Tabriz, would
start from the Tehran University, at noon. The protestors are
to march through central Tehran and reassemble at the Shahyad
Square. Organisers expect a crowd of at least half a-million
The oil man continued to
argue that although the above example was not legally contestable
and did not impose an
proof on the part of the BBC, as the reports were coming unconfirmed
sources, it was suggestive enough to direct the public (who were
largely ignorant of such details) to turn up at the right place
and at the right time! He cited a number of such gatherings that
were "organised" thanks to the woolly reporting of
the BBC's Persian Service. Foe his part the Speaker simply
dismissed the suggestions as hypothetical and moved on to the next
This time a former London Embassy official challenged
the Head of the BBC's Overseas Service on the issues of control
and impartiality of the Iranian reporters who gathered news and
provided analysis for the Persian Service.
According to the Embassy
man, on many occasions the Embassy had officially protested to
the unsuitability and biased views of the News and Analysis team
and had submitted documented evidence showing team members' past
and present membership of the Communist Tudeh party or their
affiliation with the Confederation of Iranian Students.
To all of which, according
to the Embassy official, the BBC had turned a deaf ear. He also
asked if the BBC management were aware of the contents of the Persian
broadcasts to Iran. The speaker replied that, conveniently for
the BBC, there were no recordings of the provocative news programmes
available as records were largely kept in Persian hand-written
transcripts! He said that the BBC would take every possible care
in selecting and recruitment of their staff and with a reassuring
smile signalled the end of his seminar.
These days the BBC, this most British of the institutions is in
turmoil. The long lasting saga of the dodgy dossier on Iraq's
WMD capabilities that was produced by Tony Blair's Government
on 24 September 2002 has now claimed some serious casualties within
the ranks of the British Broadcasting Corporation.
last week, the much-awaited Hutton Report on the inquiry into the
conditions surrounding the death of the government's top
WMD expert, Dr David Kelly, was released both in print and on the
Internet. Within hours of the release of the Report, the Corporation's
chief, the Chairman of the Board of Governors Gavyn Davies resigned
Next day, the BBC's second in command, the popular
Director General Greg Dyke, left his job in protest and received
an emotional farewell by the BBC's workers of all ranks who
made a national walk-out to demonstrate their support.
the collection was completed on Friday by the resignation of Andrew
Gilligan, the BBC reporter who sparked off this most disturbing
of crises in the history of the BBC-Government relations in the
In an interview that was broadcast on 29 May 2003,
Gilligan, a defence correspondent for the BBC Radio 4's flagship Today programme
alleged that he had received information from an unnamed reliable
source that the Government had knowingly misled
the nation by ‘sexing up' the September 2002 dossier
with the inclusion of the 45-minute claim.
Although Gilligan later
admitted that he had exaggerated in the wording of his report,
to make it sound exciting, it was already too late for his source.
His source, later revealed by the Government, was Dr David Kelly
who subsequently committed suicide.
David Kelly's suicide caused major embarrassments
for all parties involved. The Government and specifically Tony
his chief spin-doctor, Alistair Campbell, were accused of duplicity
and that they took the nation into the war on the false premise
of Saddam's rapidly deployable and extensive WMD programme.
In particular, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) were demonised for
their heartless treatment of Dr Kelly, a long serving and distinguished
civil servant, who was driven to suicide due to loss of esteem
The BBC, on the other hand, were accused of erroneous
and careless reporting, an allegation that they have not entirely
refuted. Tony Blair appointed the Law Lord, Brian Hutton, to
conduct a public inquiry in to Kelly's death. After a long and
investigation that saw the topmost Government, Intelligence
and the Broadcasting officials, including the Prime Minister himself,
summoned to the dock, Lord Hutton published his media-brandished
whitewash Report last week.
The Report effectively exonerated
the Government from all alleged charges and made a scathing
criticism of the BBC and its management for failing to have a structure
place to assess the authenticity of their reporting. The
management of the BBC wasted no time in kowtowing to the
Government's demands for a full and unreserved apology and issued
out by the acting chairman in full view of the international
Making matters worse, only a few days
before the publication of the Hutton Report, BBC1 showed a previously
with the late Dr Kelly that was recorded a few months before
the war in Iraq. In this interview Kelly clearly admitted
that if invaded,
Iraqis could only deploy their WMD in matters of days or
weeks and not in 45 minutes as was stated in the Governments'
What is most amazing about this interview is not
Kelly's doubting the Governments' 45-minute claim but the fact
that NOBODY within the BBC had seen this recording before.
other words an interview of such crucial importance was
kept from the Hutton inquiry but could have remained
hidden in a BBC
closet for nearly 15 months or perhaps much longer.
The fall out from Dr Kelly's affair has brought
the BBC's most sacrosanct principle, its independence, under serious
questioning. How independent really is the BBC from
governmental and other
influences? Perhaps more importantly, one should ask,
how free is the quality of the BBC's journalism from
by the journalist, the editor or other interested parties?
How robust is the control and checking mechanism employed
the accuracy of the BBC's journalism?
In the light of such debates raging both within
and without the Corporation, and as we are approaching
the 25th anniversary
the Islamic Revolution in Iran, given the BBC's controversial
reporting of those turbulent days, it is not inappropriate
to revisit the Corporation's long established Persian
their degree of independence, or lack thereof and
question the factors that could have influenced the quality
of their practices
I can see that the optimists amongst you are already
armed up to their teeth to condemn this opinion
piece as yet
of conspiracy theory mongering. But is it really?
Far from it, my intentions are merely to highlight
of the hitherto
realities of the BBC's journalism and its Persian
Service broadcasting that in view of the recent
Corporation have overnight found new meanings.
Let us examine the evidence.
Although the BBC claims to be an independent organisation
its Government dependencies are undeniable. The
BBC is not a privately
It is publicly funded through the taxpayer's
money and the licensing fee. The British Prime Minister
appoints the Head
of the BBC and the BBC's overseas Service, including
the Persian Service, is under the pay and control
of the Foreign
Last week's resignations of the two top post
holders in the Corporation,
the Chairman and the Managing Director, both
of them outspoken Blairites and New Labour supporters
well as the Labour
party donors, clearly demonstrated their inability
strike a balance
between these conflicting interests: upholding
BBC's independence and supporting the Government
day who appointed
them in the first place. So, they had to go.
The unequivocal apologies
issued by the BBC's Board of Governors left
us in no doubt the new management had no issue with
They had chosen to appease the Government.
The BBC is also criticised
for having a defective editorial system,
which failed to control and examine the accuracy
of what was aired
flagship Today programme
Now the questions that maight rationally
be asked and answered is this:
If an august organisation such as the BBC
can fail to check the accuracy of a most
and allows it to be broadcast on its most
prominent daily news programme, or if a
can keep vital
from her managers until she chooses to
unearth them, then can the same BBC even
afford to check
Service reporting in a non-English language
addressed to a gossip loving nation of
listeners some six
the BBC's Overseas Service apply any
control over the contents of the material gathered
by its Iranian
leading to the Islamic Revolution in
Iran? Finally, was the BBC aware of its Iranian
We may never find clear answers to such
questions but as long as we are aware
of these flaws
in the BBC's
we can think twice before accepting or
rejecting what the
bring us from thousands of miles away.
After all, it is not the BBC or its Persian
listeners whose discretion is in question.
At the end of the day, their choice is
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