Free Western media? Think again.

“Organised rioters have this morning taken over the streets of Brussels”, reads the state television newsreader. Having been in Iran for two weeks at this point, and having picked up daily morselsconcerning the chaos, the anarchy, that was apparently rending Europe apart from Iran’s more regime-friendly media outlets, I was not too fazed. My brother works in European Parliament, so a quick email exchange with him reassured me that, no, the West was not on the brink of total collapse. Nor were my Iranian companions particularly concerned. Sitting in a small flat in the northwest corner of Iran, we continued our way through the bread, eggs and cheese, not to mention the unavoidable – but rather addictive – syrupy black tea that constituted a Friday morning breakfast in “the Axis of Evil”. Media obfuscation, here, is something that one takes in their step; it is a daily nuisance, somethingto be, by most, routinely ignored. Instead, Iranians turn in their millions to BBC Persian, a station that has, somewhat paradoxically, consistently been the most popular satellite channel in the country for the past few years.An overenthusiastic presence of the state in Iranian media outlets, it seems, has pushed huge swathes of the highly educated, highly politicised Iranian population into watching television that is produced in the heart of the “Little Satan”, the United Kingdom. Here, I do not intend to examine the political and psychological mechanisms by which this shift took place; we have academics and analysts to do that job. No, here, I want to talk about our media, our “free” media.

Now, to hear anyone suggest that the British media is even slightly directed by the political interest of our government would be enough to provoke myriad accusations of “conspiracy theorist” (I do expect a few), but it seems to be a reality. Of course, selective reporting is far from comprehensive in contemporary Britain, as it is in, say, Saudi Arabia or Syria. Here, domestic issues are rigorously examined, politicians about whom there is the slightest whiff of corruption are the subject of extensive, expensive and entirely appropriate public inquiries. Inexcusable failings of our state institutions, once noticed, are immediately dissected and analysed, those responsible thrown into the discerning public eye. There is no lack of accountability for the state as there is in authoritarian states. For the bent politician, there is no hiding from the curious and persistent eyes of the British media. Corruption and gross misconduct are forever suspected, and forever reported. Nothing, it seems, is immune from the front page (unless, that is, it is about the sexual exploits of a footballer). So, the moral of all this is that we in Britain live in a censorship-free society, right?

Perhaps censorship-free, but something is definitely up. Ask anyone over here what the first thing they think of if someone mentions Iran, and the answer will probably be something loosely related to its aggressively progressing nuclear weapons programme, the plight of its women or the government’s furious bellicosity towards the West. There is a glaring hole in the picture we have of Iran, though. Few newspapers ever address the fact that, under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran’s attempts to further its nuclear programme are entirely legitimate. Not often does one read or hear that women in Iran are the most emancipated and politically active in the Middle East. And few would ever have heard of the “Grand Bargain” proposed by former President Khatami in 2004, the initiative that would have led to a considerable thaw of Western-Iranian relations but that was spurned by President George W. Bush. This is the Iran we don’t hear about; the Iran that is not necessarily a “rogue state”, acting irrationally to bring down global stability, but one acting within international law; the Iran where women are in an unequivocally better position than they are in our ally, Saudi Arabia; the Iran that negotiates and seeks to engage with the international community but which is spurned by it.

It would be churlish to suggest that this apparent flaw in our media is simply the result of shadowy characters in Whitehall. Rather, it appears that groupthink has, at least in the realm of foreign policy, a significant and damaging influence on the British political and media establishment. In order to keep in sync with the trending, popular news, reporters and editors alike are focusing on what are, at best, alarmist ideas. It is a sad fact that the prospect of war –not peace – sells. So, instead of suffering from Janis’ “illusion of invulnerability”, our trusted media is in fact propagating an “illusion of vulnerability”; as such, the threats presented by countries like Iran become much overblown, at least in the public sphere.

Of course, it is not just Iran that is the focus of this media bias. It has been the case with myriad “adversaries” in the past and I’m sure it will be in the future. Some things just don’t get published. We are immensely lucky to enjoy the journalistic freedom that we do in the West; but that does not mean we should be lazy. It is not enough to read “rogue state” and then discount the people of said country. That selective reporting dehumanises the populations of those countries that oppose Western policy (read “enemies of the free world”) is a sad fact, and it is something that can all too easily be ignored.