Happy birthday ayatollah?

In coming weeks, the Islamic Republic, like anyone turning 30, will be wondering what it has done with its life and what its prospects are. The fate it has dealt the scores of political opponents it has liquidised, incarcerated and tortured to consolidate its rule will probably not feature in its reflections. What BBC Persian TV holds in store for it, however, may feature.

Funded by the UK Foreign Office – to the tune of £15m ($22m) a year – PTV, which launched this week, has assembled a veritable army of newly trained journalists (some 100 of its 150-strong staff are in editorial) that looks set to knock head-on rival VOA off its perch.

The question is, with the mullahs having found a friend in Channel 4 – which invited Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to broadcast a 15-minute message on Christmas Day – will BBC Persian TV also be their friend? Or will it, as the mullahs claim, be a “suspicious and illegal channel working against the interests of the Islamic Republic” devoted to “espionage and psychological warfare”?

Who better to ask than Behrouz Afagh, head of Asia and Pacific at the BBC World Service and the person in charge of BBC PTV. Does the conspiracy theory “it’s the Brits wot done it”, immortalised in Iraj Pezeshkzad’s novel Dear Uncle Napoleon, still hold true? Does he attend chest-slapping sessions for the Queen at the Foreign Office? The friendly 54-year-old BBC veteran, who sports media-trendy specs and a warm smile, is keen to respond.

“One of the first programmes you will see on this channel,” he says, “is a one-hour documentary Kar Kare Inglisazs which looks at why Iranians have got this suspicion about Britain”. (Since we spoke it has been broadcast and it has to be said is no must-see.)

Pointing to the fact that the BBC is credited with funnelling propaganda into Iran as part of the UK’s bid to depose Iran’s popular prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, in the early 1950s, Mr Afagh says: “Britain is not of the country it was 50 years ago. Nor is Iran. The notion that a country like Britain could instigate a coup d’état of some sort in Iran today is preposterous.”

Things are different now, he insists. “Britain does not have the power, the influence, the wealth, if you like the political nous of 50, 60 or 100 years ago.” While the UK’s power has waned, he says, the World Service has evolved. (That its interactive show Nowbat-e Shoma – Your Turn – promises a debate on polygamy next week, however, shows evolving of a different sort has still to occur, unless you are an Afghan warlord, in which case it might come a across as cutting-edge.)

“The BBC has been broadcasting in Iran since 1940,” says Professor Annabelle Sreberny, who teaches international communication at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies and is co-author of Small Media, Big Revolution: Communication, Culture, and the Iranian Revolution. “The relationship between the Foreign Office and the BBC World Service has gone through different phases from overt attempts to structure its content to a hands-off approach.”

OK but what then is the Foreign Office’s ultimate objective? “I’m not the FO, I can’t explain,” says Mr Afagh. “The understanding is if Britain has an international channel – radio or television – which produces the highest quality programming that is impartial and objective, then that is good thing. It contributes to better understanding in the world, a better flow of information and brings some credit to British society.”

Professor Sreberny agrees. “The BBC aims to offer a UK perspective on global issues,” she says. In her view, the launch represents an act of “British public diplomacy” that is “much more subtle” than BBC Persian radio was as the height of its notoriety. “Its impact will be a slow one,” she says, “because in Iran there is a welter of channels competing and the BBC is one voice among many — and PTV faces huge problems, not least in obtaining original footage of people and events within Iran.”

So there we have it – no chest-slapping at the FO. “I’ve worked as a journalist in the World Service for 25-odd years,” says Mr Afagh. “I can’t remember a single time – a single time – anyone has come to me and said you ‘must’ broadcast this or you ‘must not’.”

Mr Afagh adds: “Very often what we broadcast is in direct opposition to UK foreign policy. In the World Service we do interview the Taliban. We do interview people who are completely against the British presence in Afghanistan, they’ve got anti-British views, and they get on air. They are challenged but they get on air. I’m not so sure whether Foreign Office would like that. It cannot and does not say ‘you shouldn’t’.”

Is it true, I ask Mr Afagh, that PTV favours hiring journalists who are on friendly terms with the Islamic regime – that is, who can travel to Iran freely, effectively muting the voices of the exiled opposition?

“We’ve got all kinds of people,” he says. “We do want to have a correspondent in Iran. We do want the correspondent to have permission to work in Iran. We have been asking Iranian officials for years to allow us to have a correspondent in Iran. What we say is ‘We are not against you, we are not for you’ – the BBC does not have a position for or against anybody. This is what we’re doing and it’s perfectly legitimate.”

The channel’s job, he says, is not “regime bashing or opposition bashing – there are no ‘no-go’ areas as far as news is concerned.”

“VOA offers very little other than endlessly haranguing the regime,” says Professor Sreberny. “If Iranian-TV viewers are subject to propaganda, I don’t think propaganda coming from the other direction is all that helpful.”

“The press [in Iran] has become more open now, although not as open as it could be,” she says. “When the government feels insecure it closes a newspaper or imprisons a blogger.”

On the subject of the blogosphere, which PTV is setting out to embrace with its multimedia output, she believes the point is whether PTV “can find space for voices that aren’t being heard”.

“There is a huge amount of debate in Iran, especially in the blogosphere – remember that Iran is paradoxical in that it is an authoritarian state yet a wide range of voices are debating on the internet.

Funded by the FO or not, the corporation’s culture of listening to the views of the audience is already in evidence. Last week PTV organised a meeting of bloggers to court their views on a test-run of one of its interactive shows.

Will PTV turn out to be a birthday cake for the Islamic Republic as its detractors fear? Who knows. But one thing is clear – the proof will be in the pudding.

“I would say watch, read, listen,” says Mr Afagh, “does it sound independent, impartial, accurate – judge us by that.”

“I am a believer in empirical analysis,” says Professor Sreberny. “Let’s give the channel a chance and see what it does.”

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