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?
Past 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.
It's members 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 broadcasts 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 reporting.
There were a few exceptions. The Speaker claimed that the Persian service was primarily set up to counter act the poisonous 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, the 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. He objected 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.
A former 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!
The 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. He provided 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 expected to march through central Tehran and reassemble at the Shahyad Square. Organisers expect a crowd of at least half a-million strong to turn up.”
The oil man continued to argue that although the above example was not legally contestable and did not impose an obligation of 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 question.
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.
Present 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.
On Wednesday 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 his post.
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.
Finally 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 first place.
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 Blair and 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 and honour.
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 detailed 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 in place to assess the authenticity of their reporting. The acting management of the BBC wasted no time in kowtowing to the Government's demands for a full and unreserved apology and issued one read out by the acting chairman in full view of the international media's representatives.
Making matters worse, only a few days before the publication of the Hutton Report, BBC1 showed a previously unseen interview 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' dossier.
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. In other words an interview of such crucial importance was not only 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 the governmental and other influences? Perhaps more importantly, one should ask, how free is the quality of the BBC's journalism from personal interventions by the journalist, the editor or other interested parties? How robust is the control and checking mechanism employed to ensure 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 of 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 Service, reassess their degree of independence, or lack thereof and question the factors that could have influenced the quality of their practices and personnel.
Future I can see that the optimists amongst you are already armed up to their teeth to condemn this opinion piece as yet another example of conspiracy theory mongering. But is it really? Far from it, my intentions are merely to highlight some of the hitherto unspoken realities of the BBC's journalism and its Persian Service broadcasting that in view of the recent upheavals surrounding the 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 owned organisation. 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 Office.
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 as well as the Labour party donors, clearly demonstrated their inability to strike a balance between these conflicting interests: upholding BBC's independence and supporting the Government of the 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 the conflicting interest. 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 on their flagship Today programme lat May.
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 serious allegation against the British government and allows it to be broadcast on its most prominent daily news programme, or if a BBC journalist can keep vital evidence hidden from her managers until she chooses to unearth them, then can the same BBC even bother or afford to check the accuracy of its Persian Service reporting in a non-English language addressed to a gossip loving nation of listeners some six thousand miles away?
Did the BBC's Overseas Service apply any control over the contents of the material gathered by its Iranian reporters during the period leading to the Islamic Revolution in Iran? Finally, was the BBC aware of its Iranian staff's political past and their sympathies?
We may never find clear answers to such questions but as long as we are aware of these flaws in the BBC's Persian broadcasts, we can think twice before accepting or rejecting what the air waves bring us from thousands of miles away. After all, it is not the BBC or its Persian Service who are at fault. It is their distant listeners whose discretion is in question. At the end of the day, their choice is clear: if in doubt, switch off the radio.