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Injaa landan ast*
BBC Persian Service 60 years on

By Hossein Shahidi
September 24, 2001
The Iranian

This paper was planned for publication on September 16, the 60th anniversary of Reza Shah's abdication, but was postponed to make room for the coverage of the terrorist attacks in the U.S. Read this article in Persian.

Among the many languages in which the BBC's External or World Service programmes have been broadcast since the Second World War, the Persian Service is unique in being credited with, or accused of, having brought about the downfall of two kings -- Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was forced by the Allied Powers to abdicate in favour of his son, Mohammad-Reza on 16 September 1941; and Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi whose thirty-seven-year rule was brought to an end by the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79.

That in itself could have guaranteed a heated discussion, at least in academic circles, about the real extent to which BBC broadcasts were instrumental in those historic events. But the upheavals since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 have kept the matter alive as a highly topical subject of public debate. Click on image

In Iran, on the one hand some conservative newspapers refer to the BBC Persian Service as "bouq-e este'mar va estekbar", or the "trumpet of colonialism and arrogance". On the other hand, politicians belonging to the conservative camp have from time to time chosen to make their views known through interviews with the same service -- sometimes exposing themselves to strong criticism from their colleagues.

Many journalists and activists belonging to the reformist camp have also been interviewed by the BBC Persian Service. Some of these have eventually ended up in prison, though none has been explicitly charged with having been interviewed by the BBC. Speaking to the domestic press, relatives of jailed reformists have sometimes warned that unless the authorities did something to resolve the cases of the detainees, they may have to give interviews to foreign radios.

Many Iranian royalists, as well as many who were against the monarchy and are opposed to Iran's current, Islamic government, have accused the BBC Persian Service of supporting the Islamic Republic. Some of these have given the service the nickname "Ayatollah BBC". In recent years, others have refined the title, referring to the BBC Persian Service as "Khatami 1" -- "Khatami 2" being the label used for the much younger Persian Service of the American-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which in Iran is simply referred to as "Radio Azadi", or "Radio Freedom". ("Khatami 1" and "Khatami 2" coined by the Iranian satirist, Hadi Khorsandi). Click on image

Long Memories, Deep Wounds

The BBC's foreign language services were political weapons produced for the battle against Nazi Germany. Broadcasts to countries which were occupied by the Nazis were therefore seen as the voice of liberation. The Persian Service was initially broadcasting to a country which had declared itself neutral in the war, and then to the same country after it had then been occupied by the Allies. The only true call for freedom that that the listeners to the Service could detect came in broadcasts critical of Reza Shah and his rule. These broadcasts, based on reports from the British Embassy in Tehran, were launched after Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union and the oil fields of Caucasus and southern Iran were considered to be vulnerable, and they came to an end after Reza Shah had abdicated.

Although the BBC management itself was aware of the fundamental role of the Allied occupation forces in persuading Reza Shah to give up power, to the Iranians, and to some Western observers, it appeared that a powerful and autocratic king had been driven form his throne by radio alone. In addition to this demonstration of power, in Iran as in the rest of the world, the BBC's coverage of the War gave it a reputation as a reliable source of news. Further credits were won by the BBC Persian Service's cultural programmes, including talks by Mojtaba Minovi, which opened new horizons to a ninety per cent illiterate population. Click on image

The picture changed dramatically a decade later when, during the movement for the nationalisation of Iranian oil, the BBC Persian Service was seen by most listeners as putting across the point of view of the British Government and of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the fore-runner of today's British Petroleum, or BP. Listeners were particularly enraged by commentaries which criticised Dr Mossadegh and sought to persuade Iranians that the nationalisation of oil was illegal and would not be in Iran's interest. In their numerous letters to the BBC, the listeners would ask, among other questions, why it was legitimate and beneficial for Britain to nationalise its coal industry, but not for Iran to nationalise its oil.

The defeat of the movement and Dr Mossadegh's overthrow, in the coup engineered by Britain and the United States, shattered the trust that many Iranians had placed in the BBC. But at the same time, the defeat must have reinforced the belief that BBC reports were direct expressions of British government policy, and that Britain could do whatever it wished in Iran. That belief was strengthened even further after BBC reports of the unfolding Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 were followed by the fall of Mohammad-Reza Shah Pahlavi. Click on image

Since then, there have been so many twists and turns in Iran that those interested in demonstrating that the BBC Persian Service is biased one way or another might have little difficulty in finding a set of reports, interviews, commentaries and other broadcasts to support their point. Nonetheless, the Service still continues to be listened to -- and read, now that it is has an online service -- by Iranians from across the political spectrum.

Mythical Powers, True Information

The deep-rooted belief that Britain is behind every move in Iran is no doubt one of the reasons why some Iranians still turn to the BBC to find out what is happening in their country. For these listeners, there is little doubt that the Foreign Office dictates every news item, as well as the format chosen for its coverage. Even mistakes in translation or flaws in broadcasting can be interpreted as policy decisions. But this variation of the conspiracy theory is probably losing ground, as most of those who believe in it strongly belong to the older generation. Click on image

The rest of the audience have more prosaic reasons for tuning into the BBC. Above all, listeners in Iran, as in other parts of the world, would like to know what is happening in their own country, and will turn to an outside source, if they find the domestic media not up to the job.

Since their inception, the Iranian media have experienced only brief periods without close state supervision. Political control, in particular the regular closure of newspapers, has in turn slowed down the development of Iranian journalists' technical skills. These twin problems have meant that important news about Iran may either not be carried by the domestic media, or that its coverage may lack the accuracy, clarity, brevity and impartiality that is required by the audience. Click on image

Over the past ten years, the Iranian press has moved dramatically from a half dozen to more than 40 national dailies, plus hundreds of periodicals. Newspapers launched after President Khatami's election in 1997 were not only daring -- sometimes perhaps reckless -- in their coverage, but they also introduced innovations in design and layout, creating a fresh and colourful image, with pictures, especially in the arts, literature and sports pages, taken from the internet.

Once the Iranian newspapers themselves were placed on the internet, the flow of information was reversed: now Iranians abroad were seeking news about Iran from newspapers inside the country. The Iranian news agency too has played an important role in this respect. Click on image

A few years ago, it was clear that this surge in the supply of news was meeting the demands of some of the BBC's audience in Iran, especially in big cities. In fact, there were those who would say that the Persian Service was following in the footsteps of the domestic press. The Service was also said to be lagging behind cultural developments in Iran, in sharp contrast to the olden days when it would be the first, sometimes the only, source of such news.

But the closure over the past year of some 40 newspapers and periodicals, and the imprisonment of several leading journalists, has once again raised the demand in Iran for information from abroad.

Music, Laughter and Letters

Music and drama have always been among the most popular BBC programmes. After the Revolution, the music programmes on the BBC Persian Service became even more attractive because of the ten-year ban on broadcasting anything but martial and religious music on Iranian radio and television. Iranians also tune in to BBC programmes on science and technology, as well as art and entertainment. One of the most successful BBC programmes after the Revolution was a nightly satirical show, "Majelleh-ye Shafahi" (The Oral Magazine) launched towards the end of the Iran-Iraq war, which included some of the best verse and prose broadcast on the Persian Service.

Until recently, another very popular feature of the BBC Persian Service was the "Post Box" programme which dealt with listeners' questions on a whole range of subjects - from the origins of the universe to how, at the time of prayer, a traveller to the Moon could find the direction of Mecca. The subtlety of the answers turned at least two of the producer-presenters of the Post Box programme into un-challenged stars: Abol-Qassem Taheri in the 1940s and '50s, and Lotf-Ali Khonji in the 1980s and '90s. Click on image

Before the Revolution, Iranian radio and television too used to produce impressive cultural and entertainment programmes. The sharp drop after the Revolution in the quality of such programmes has been somewhat reversed in recent years. There have also been improvements in the production of news programmes, but their content has remained, as ever, under strict political control.

As long as the Iranian state was seen as monolithic, either before or after the Revolution, political control over news coverage would simply force the audience to rely on international suppliers of news. But following President Khatami's election and the formation of a reformist tendency under his leadership, the reformists have repeatedly accused the Iranian radio and television of being biased in favour of the conservatives. The most recent accusation came when the national broadcaster refused to carry live the final results of Mr Khatami's landslide re-election in June 2001. Click on image

It was not, therefore, a surprise when soon after the Presidential elections the reformist-dominated Iranian Parliament, the Majlis, decided to investigate the management of radio and television, which is ultimately under the control of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Now that Ayatollah Khamenei's approval for the investigation has been secured, the Majlis could gain a degree of influence over broadcasting, and the national radio and television may well begin to reflect Iran's increasingly pluralistic politics.

In such a case, the Iranian broadcaster, with its powerful, multi-channel radio and television networks, could pose the international Persian language broadcasters with their greatest challenge ever to retain an audience in Iran. Read this article in Persian.

* Injaa landan ast: This is London


Hossein Shahidi has worked in the BBC's Persian and Arabic Services, and its News and Training departments. In October, he will join Oxford University to continue his research into professional journalism in Iran. This paper was presented at the "Middle East in London" conference at the University of London, June 2001. A detailed account of the creation of the BBC Persian Service can be found in the author's paper, "The BBC Persian Service, 1940-1953, and the Nationalisation of Iranian Oil", in the June 2001 edition of the Journal of Iranian Research and Analysis.

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