What would it take for journalists to seriously challenge government propaganda? A war with over one million dead, four million refugees, a country’s infrastructure shattered, and the increased threat of retail ‘terror’ in response to the West’s wholesale ‘terror’? How horrifying do even very recent experiences have to be, how great the war crimes, before media professionals begin to exhibit scepticism towards Western governments’ hyping of yet another ‘threat’. Why is warmongering the default mode for the corporate media?
On Channel 4 News, the famed ‘pinko-liberal’ news presenter Jon ‘Six Pilgers’ Snow intoned ominously:
‘It is still not a nuclear weapon, but an upgrading of Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium ostensibly for its nuclear power plant.’ (C4 News headlines, February 15, 2012)
‘Still’ not a nuclear weapon – not yet? – but the primary focus is absolutely on an alleged military threat that does not actually exist. Foreign correspondent Jonathan Miller added:
‘This development does not bring Iran any closer to building a bomb… But if Tehran is trying to convince the world that its purpose is peaceful, no-one’s buying it…’ (C4 News, ‘Iran reveals its latest step in nuclear arms’, February 15, 2012)
That is not quite true, as we will see below. Miller added:
‘This may look like the set of a 70s Bond movie, but this is the Natanz reactor…’
The reference is telling – much media reporting does seem to be inspired by a Bond movie vision of the world. Token balance was provided:
‘There’s no evidence that Iran is intending to construct a nuclear weapon.’
This put Snow’s opening comment in perspective. A more accurate version would have been: ‘It is still not evidence that Iran has plans to build a nuclear weapon.’
Instead, the required propaganda pitch was clear. Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was defiantly sticking ‘two fingers up to the UN and a hostile world’. As ever, it is ‘us’ (the ‘world’) versus ‘them’. Miller continued:
‘The 74 million people of the Islamic republic are paying a high price for their leader’s defiance.’
As in Iraq, the Bad Guys, not the West, are responsible for any suffering caused. No question that Israel, the US and its allies bear any responsibility for the tension, or the lethal effects of sanctions. Miller added:
‘Their nation is isolated, they’re suffering from sanctions – prices are rising, credit tightening, currency plummeting. The Tehran regime thinks its brinkmanship gives it leverage – it has written to the EU offering to resume stalled nuclear talks.’
In media Newspeak, ‘isolated’ means ‘bad’. Likewise, ‘secretive’ and ‘hermit’. When North Korea is described as ‘the secretive, hermit state’ that is ‘increasingly isolated’, it means North Korea is Bad! Bad! Bad!
Meanwhile, on the BBC’s News at Ten, Huw Edwards presented the headlines:
‘The Iranians delight in the latest advances in their nuclear programme.’
Little wrong with that. But moments later, when the actual news report was introduced, ‘nuclear programme’ had mysteriously morphed into ‘nuclear weapons programme’. Edwards told the watching millions:
‘Iran has announced new developments in its nuclear weapons programme. State television reported that for the first time Iranian-made nuclear fuel rods have been loaded into a research reactor in Tehran. The event was attended by President Ahmadinejad.’
Behind a veneer of polite impartiality, the BBC – like Channel 4 News and the rest of the media – presents official enemies as Bond villains: grandiose, dangerous and absurd. Thus James Reynolds began his report:
‘Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has a PhD in traffic management. But he often likes to play the part of nuclear physicist. This afternoon Iran’s president inspected new home-made fuel rods for a research reactor in Tehran, all made without any help from the West.’
In 1998, an ITN report described how Saddam Hussein was ‘playing his favourite role of defender of the Arab people’. (James Mates, ITN, 10 O’Clock News, February 16, 1998)
Obama, by contrast, is the ‘leader of the free world’; he doesn’t ‘play’ at ‘roles’.
‘The most important of the president’s announcements on state TV may be the installation of 3000 new centrifuges for uranium enrichment. In itself, this does not prove that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. But it puts the country in a better position to do so, if it chooses.’
BBC ‘balance’ dictates that a reliable talking head should next provide a quote. This is almost never a whistleblower willing to counter the official view – people like veteran reporter Seymour Hersh, former IAEA nuclear inspector Robert Kelley or foreign affairs analyst Gareth Porter. A ‘respected’ think tank with close ties to the military-political establishment is preferred, such as the International Institute for Strategic Studies:
‘If it’s true that Iran is introducing 3000 more centrifuges, and that they are more efficient, that is significant. It means that the timeline for Iran being able to introduce a nuclear weapon, if they were to decide to do so, is significantly shorter.’
Perhaps within 45 minutes of a decision being taken? Is Cyprus at risk?
‘Exactly how much shorter is something that negotiators will try to work out. The last time that world powers and Iran sat down for nuclear talks – a year ago. They achieved nothing. But Iran has now told the West it’s ready to have another go.
‘And this is what makes things all the more urgent. Only this week, Israel accused Iran of carrying out assassination attempts against Israeli diplomats in India, Georgia and Thailand. It’s a charge denied by Iran but it adds to Israel’s own sense that Iran must be stopped.’ (BBC1, February 15, 2012)
The ‘explanation’ echoes the official line. Rational scrutiny and serious appraisal are consigned to the margins, seemingly just beyond the reach of BBC journalism.
‘We’ Are Patient Peacelovers; ‘They’ Are Defiant Warmongers
Away from BBC News, the print media went further. A front page story in The Times on February 20 made no pretence of balance or accuracy. Captured by the media monitoring group News Unspun, this story from an ostensibly serious paper in the Murdoch stable, asserted – contrary to the evidence – that there is an ‘illicit atomic weapons programme’ and ‘atomic weaponry’ in Iran (Hugh Tomlinson and Roger Boyes, ‘Defiant Iran cuts off oil to Britain,’ The Times, February 20, 2012). This propaganda was reinforced, if also contradicted, by a Times editorial the following day which declared, quite outrageously, that it is ‘beyond doubt’ that ‘Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon’ (Leader, ‘Iran On The Brink’, The Times, February 21, 2012).
In a media alert last November, we examined the media’s biased coverage of a recent report by the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) on Iran’s nuclear programme. Despite all the political and media rhetoric, there was, in fact, no new evidence of any nuclear weapons programme. The respected investigative reporter Seymour Hersh summed up where things now stand:
‘They found nothing. Nothing. No evidence of any weaponization. In other words, no evidence of a facility to build the bomb. They have facilities to enrich, but not separate facilities to build the bomb. This is simply a fact.’
Former CIA analyst Ray McGovern has pointed to the emerging consensus among the intelligence and military agencies of the United States and Israel that Iran has not made a decision to build a nuclear weapon. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that ‘Israel believes Iran itself has not yet decided whether to make a nuclear bomb, according to intelligence assessment to be presented later this week to U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Dempsey.’
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta commented recently: ‘Are they [the Iranians] trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No.’
A recent article in the New York Times was entitled: ‘US Agencies See No Move By Iran To Build A Bomb.’
Nevertheless, an Independent editorial declared that Iran’s leaders are ‘potentially, courting disaster.’ It is Tehran, not the West, that is ‘upping the ante’. The conclusion:
‘Before pursuing their present course further, Iran’s leaders should understand that they risk provoking the very response they, and most of the rest of the world, are desperate to avoid.’
If Israel or the US attacks this year, it will be the result of Iran’s provocation, even though there is simply no evidence that they are attempting to build a bomb.
A Guardian report by Chris McGreal came heavily laden with the views of unnamed ‘US officials’ with their ‘long-held doubts… about whether the Iranians can be enticed or cajoled into serious negotiations.’ Alas, ‘We don’t see a way forward,’ said one official. ‘The record shows that there is nothing to work with.’ McGreal continued:
‘official analysts working on Iran have identified what one described as a “sweet spot”, where the mix of diplomacy, political timetables and practical issues come together to suggest that if Israel launches a unilateral assault it is more likely in September or October, although they describe that as a “best guess”.’
Meanwhile, Israel is in need of US reassurance but portrayed as being patient; a simulacrum of responsible statehood:
‘”The sanctions are there to pressure Iran and reassure Israel that we are taking this issue seriously,” said one official. “The focus is on demonstrating to Israel that this has a chance of working. Israel is sceptical but appreciates the effort. It is willing to give it a go, but how long will it wait?”’
It is standard practice to portray the official enemy as guilty of warmongering and sabre-rattling; not the West with its encirclement of Iran by military bases and autocratic US-supported Gulf states, together with the threatening presence of British, French and US warships in the region:
‘Iran’s increasingly belligerent moves – such as the botched attempts, laid at Tehran’s door, to attack Israeli diplomats in Thailand, India and Georgia – are compounding the sense that Iran is far from ready to negotiate.’
A comparison of US and Iranian military spending is embarrassing and, so, rarely provided. As Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times:
‘But let’s have some perspective, please: we’re talking about a country with roughly the G.D.P. of Connecticut, and a government whose military budget is roughly the same as Sweden’s.’
There was a stunning lack of journalistic scepticism in the Guardian report; no quotes or insights from credible experts who doubt Iran is even trying to build a bomb. Had McGreal read anything by Hersh, for example, or followed Hersh’s sources and links? Surely McGreal recalled the grave journalistic refusal in 2002-2003 to reflect the extent of scepticism concerning Iraq’s alleged WMD. Amazingly, the mainstream’s default mode is so fixed that even the recent – and continuing – catastrophe of Iraq is unable to disturb the propaganda production process.
We emailed McGreal but did not receive a response.
Exchange With BBC News At Ten Editor
On February 16, we emailed James Stephenson, editor of BBC News at Ten, to say that the previous night’s item on Iran had breached the news organisation’s obligations on accuracy and impartiality:
I hope all’s well with you. Do you have a moment to explain the important wording of your Iran item on the News at Ten last night, please?
Huw Edwards said during the introductory headlines:
‘The Iranians delight in the latest advances in their nuclear programme.’
But then when he introduced the Iran item itself, at around 13 mins, he said:
‘Iran has announced new developments in its nuclear weapons programme.’
A ‘nuclear’ programme had now become a ‘nuclear weapons’ programme. You ought to be aware that there is no definitive evidence of a ‘nuclear weapons’ programme and that you are misleading the BBC audience by stating it as a fact.
Hersh wrote about this on The New Yorker website.
Hersh quoted Greg Thielmann, a former State Department and Senate Intelligence Committee analyst, who said: ‘there is nothing that indicates that Iran is really building a bomb.’
Hersh also described the IAEA report as a ‘political document,’ not a scientific study. ‘They [the US’s Joint Special Operations Force Command] found nothing. Nothing. No evidence of any weaponization.’
‘In other words, no evidence of a facility to build the bomb. They have facilities to enrich, but not separate facilities to build the bomb. This is simply a fact.’
How do you justify your assertion of a ‘nuclear weapons’ programme?
I hope you will respond soon.
Co-Editor, Media Lens
To his credit, Stephenson responded the following day:
Thank you for your email.
As you say, the headline was accurate. The piece made clear that the latest developments do not prove Iran is seeking to develop a nuclear weapon, although it would make it easier to do so. This should have been reflected in the cue.
Editor, BBC News at Ten
‘This should have been reflected in the cue’ is about the biggest concession we’ve ever seen from a BBC editor in all the years we’ve been doing Media Lens. As we’ve pointed out over the years, such ‘slips’ consistently tilt in the direction of state-corporate propaganda. They never seem to go the other way: towards undermining the deceptions and falsehoods generated by government and big business.
One of our regular posters on the Media Lens message board, ‘junglefish’, received a similar reply from Stephenson. Pressing further, he asked the BBC editor whether ‘the cue’ was scripted or whether it had been inserted on the hoof by Huw Edwards. Stephenson replied that it had been ‘an error in the script’. (Email, February 23, 2012).
Our reader emailed back:
‘So, we can ascertain that a (presumably) senior BBC journalist, having reviewed the content of the item in question decided to write a cue that stated, “Iran has announced new developments in its nuclear weapons programme.” This was then presumably sub-edited and checked by other members of the BBC News team, and yet no one noticed the obvious and I believe very important error. I find this quite remarkable.
‘I would be interested to know what your views are regarding this error, whether you feel that the BBC ought to exercise more care in this regard, and what steps you might be able to take to correct the mis-representation in this item?’
The BBC editor replied:
‘We work to very high standards and mistakes are rare. It is unfortunate a slip occurred on this occasion. We will make sure this does not happen again in the future. As I said in my earlier email, the headline was accurate and the piece made the Iranian position clear, so the full picture was given in the coverage despite the error in the cue.
‘I am afraid I do not have anything further to add. Of course you have the right to make a formal complaint via the BBC website if you wish to do so.’ (Media Lens message board, February 25, 2012)
Regular readers will be all too aware of the stifling, bureaucratic treacle of the BBC complaints process described even by one former BBC chairman as ‘absolutely hopeless’.
Poster ‘johnlilburne’ noted on our board:
‘You can be damn sure such an “error” would not be made if it cast the Israelis in a bad light.
‘If one did slip through, there would be hell to pay and heads would roll.’ (Media Lens message board, February 25, 2012)
Finally, as another of our regular posters, George_HK observed sardonically:
‘Isn’t it peculiar how these regular “mistakes” always favour the lies being propagandised about the official enemies and never told about our “allies”.
‘That’s because these “mistakes” happen when people aren’t careful to hold back on their prejudices and thought processes. Things which don’t cross these peoples thoughts are never “mistakenly broadcast”.’ (Media Lens message board, February 25, 2012)
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Please write to:
James Stephenson, BBC News at Ten editor
Email: [email protected]
Huw Edwards, BBC News presenter
Email: [email protected]
Chris McGreal, Guardian reporter
Email: [email protected]
Richard Beeston, Times foreign editor
Email: [email protected]
Please copy us in on any exchanges or forward them to us later at: