The other night, I was watching the BBC news as they reported the release of video footage of Ratko Mladić, with a context-providing package from Allan Little, who reported with some distinction from the Bosnian war. Much of Allan’s narration was based around the thesis of Serbia confronting its past, with its nice shiny moderate pro-European government (cue images of president Boris Tadić striking heroic poses) fighting the good fight against nasty hardline ultranationalists (cue footage of angry demonstrators waving placards in Cyrillic script, which would make zero sense to most viewers).
And it was at this point that I sat up in interest. The demonstration – which was not in fact a rally in defence of Mladić, but on the subject of Kosovo – was made up of supporters of the DSS, the party of Vojislav Koštunica. You remember him, don’t you? He was the guy who ousted Milošević back in 2000, and was also a nice pro-European moderate for a while, until the Yanks and EU realised he was too honest for his own good. You would not have known any of this from the package. And, while I don’t want to criticise Allan Little for what wasn’t in a short package, one would not guess from BBC coverage of the Balkans, or that in any of the British media, that Slobo’s Socialist Party, in which the Milošević family retains enormous influence, is now part of the government in Belgrade, in a coalition deal brokered by the US and British ambassadors. Remember Tomislav Nikolić, the scary hardliner defeated by Boris Tadić in last year’s elections? He’s likely to be in government soon, and once the US and EU officially designate him a moderate, his past associations, including the many years he spent as loyal deputy to Vojislav Šešelj, will disappear down the memory hole too.
This came back to me today while watching coverage of the election in Iran. The British media had been predicting in advance either a victory for Mousavi or at least a tight election that might open the door to a colour revolution. (Since the same reporters had been more or less openly supporting Mousavi, the wish may have been father to the thought.) Judging from what I’m watching on News 24 as I type, the hankering after a colour revolution is still there. Our intrepid journalists seem to find it difficult to comprehend that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s answer to Boris Johnson, might actually have the majority of the population behind him. But then, the credible analysts who are saying this are the same credible analysts who failed to predict him winning his first term four years ago, so what do they know?
This raises a number of questions about journalistic process. One is that actual analysis is often supplanted by yo-words like “moderate” or “reformist”, or by boo-words like “hardline” or “ultranationalist”. Behind this is the dichotomy that divides foreign politicians into “pro-Western” or “anti-Western”, and the assumption that democracy and progress are invariably on the side of the former. If anything, studio anchors are even worse at this, as you’ll know if you’ve ever ground your teeth through Kirsty Wark asking her guests how the Venezuelan revolution can be overthrown.
There’s a further point about the modus operandi of foreign correspondents. Firstly, unlike the days when Mark Tully could report India for decades, building up a huge reservoir of knowledge, contacts and language skills, these days correspondents are shuffled around the globe at such a rate they often have next to no background knowledge. Then there’s the question of who they talk to. They talk an awful lot to taxi drivers, and of course everywhere in the world taxi drivers are convinced that they could run the country much better. (I now have an image in my head of an Iranian taxi driver telling John Simpson, “I once had that Ali Larejani in the back of my cab. Very clever man.”) They talk to local journalists, who themselves have plenty of axes to grind. They talk to NGO activists both foreign and local, although even the local ones are often funded by the US or EU, with all the caveats that implies. And of course they talk, incessantly, to each other, forming an echo chamber, which is why they almost always say exactly the same thing.
There’s a class aspect to this, too. You want to interview people who are articulate, who speak English, and who your audience won’t find totally alien, which dictates a certain sociological profile. You see it all the time. So your Venezuela correspondent will usually stick to the nicer parts of Caracas rather than the barrios, which is why they seem to have terrible difficulty in finding Chávez supporters, and why in turn they assume that Chávez is deeply unpopular. During the abortive putsch in Moldova earlier this year, there was the assumption that those terribly modern young people occupying the parliament had the people, or at least the tide of history, on their side, while anyone with a glancing knowledge of Moldova would find it entirely plausible that the Communists would win the elections by a mile. Once in Belgrade, I shared a few drinks with a foreign correspondent who couldn’t get his head round the idea that, notwithstanding some ballot-stuffing, Slobo actually did have mass support. “But I never talk to anybody who supports that awful man,” he said. It turned out that he was spending most of his time around the university district. The politics of the students at the time were pretty much defined by vicarious EU chauvinism, and many of them were the children of nomenklatura members who had been ousted by the Milošević faction in the League of Communists, so the responses from that quarter were unsurprising. “Have you,” I asked, “gone over the river to Zemun to ask the plebs what they think?” As it happened, he had not. While I yield to few people in my distaste for Slobo, I thought it was kind of important to get a handle on his base.
And so it is in Iran, where the ebullient Mr Ahmadinejad looks to have convincingly won a second term. That doesn’t surprise me. Ahmadinejad is a populist and, unlike Gordon Brown, a populist who’s managed to be popular. His strong defence of national sovereignty and independence is popular. (And relevant. Even without the nuclear issue, you’ve got this armed Baluchi separatist movement that’s funded by the Saudis and armed by Pakistani intelligence. Not to mention the CIA being up to their necks in trying to stir up the Azeris.) What’s even more popular is his redistributive economic policy, which has been plagued by maladministration but is based on the sound idea that the poor of Iran should get some benefit from the country’s oil wealth. This puts him in conflict with the bazaari section of the theocracy, who want a Deng Xiaoping-style politic that marries the free market with the mullahs’ continued domination of the administration. This is the faction that was represented by Rafsanjani in the last election, and by Mousavi in this one, although Mousavi was canny enough to add some bits of social liberalism to his platform, thus appealing to the north Tehran bourgeoisie in a way that Rafsanjani couldn’t do.
It’s also worth remarking, though this may be counterintuitive, that despite all the talk about “conservative clerics”, Ahmadinejad isn’t all that popular with the theocrats. That’s because, unlike for example the reformist former president Khatami who’s a senior cleric in his own right, Ahmadinejad’s power base is amongst the Pasdaran and the various revolutionary militias. Not that he’s a secularist in the sense that Professor Dawkins might understand it, but there is a definite tendency – which isn’t an explicit policy, and may not even be a conscious one – towards kicking the ayatollahs upstairs to form a sort of Shia House of Lords. Certainly, while the Supreme Leader remains in situ, the president cannot just be dismissed as a cipher, and if you see televised coverage of Majlis debates, the overwhelming preponderance of black and white turbans that you used to see isn’t there any more.
But let’s return to class. Correspondents reporting from Tehran have remarked, accurately, that Mr Ahmadinejad draws his support from the urban poor and the peasantry. They say that as if it’s intrinsically a bad thing. But here’s something curious. The high turnout was supposed to have worked against Ahmadinejad, but that ain’t necessarily so, because there are far more poor people in Iran than rich ones. Even if, for journalistic purposes, you spend a lot of time talking to north Tehran middle-class trendies who want looser dress codes, more consumerism and the sort of things middle-class Londoners can identify with – well, you couldn’t possibly believe that they represent the average Shia in the street. Not unless you only move in those circles…
Then again, there are plenty of journos over here who think that doing vox pops on a housing estate is some sort of dangerous and unpleasant assignment. Maybe it’s a backhanded compliment to the for corrs that we expect a little better from them.