Dinner Jacket versus the journalistic echo chamber

mahmoud-ahmadinejad

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.

22 Comments

  1. IslingtonSet said,

    June 14, 2009 at 9:18 am

    You remain unmoved then, by those such as Juan Cole, who suggest this election was stolen?

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 14, 2009 at 9:41 am

    I don’t claim to know more than Juan does, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there were some irregularities. I’ve just been trying to explain why I’m unmoved by the idea that it’s inherently implausible that he would have won. I’m just as interested in the commentariat’s progression from “we quite like this Mousavi” to “people we can identify with are supporting Mousavi” to “this Mousavi bloke looks like a winner”.

  3. ejh said,

    June 14, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    They talk an awful lot to taxi drivers

    They probably don’t – it’s a well-known journalistic ruse to invent a taxi driver’s comments as introduction to your piece (so they just happened to tell you this stuff on your way from the airport).

    Incidentally in the defence of the correspondents, it’s entirely possible that they’ve spent their entire professional and indeed educational lives in circles where working-class people only really intrude to drive you places and sell you things, and in a political world where well-off metropolitans are considered to be of supreme importance, not least because they are economically.

    It’s really hard to say exactly what I mean without sounding like it’s a series of jibes, but it’s not – I don’t think these are usually bad correspondents at all*, it’s just that their life-circumstances and the world in which they operate lead them to make a lot of assumptions and accumulate a lot of habits that amount to a very serious bias in favour of certain sorts of people and certain points of view.

    [* except Steve Kingstone, BBS correspondent in Spain, who really is a useless lazy bastard who never goes out of Madrid.]

  4. IslingtonSet said,

    June 14, 2009 at 3:57 pm

    I’m not so sure, splinteredsunrise, the internet is ablaze, you may well have backed the wrong horse. People like Cole, Sullivan are having blinders. For instance look at this – http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2009/06/the-real-results.html
    Of course everything is still in flux and this could be wild rumour. But its also not infeasible that the western journalists got it spot on. A lot of Iranians certainly seem to think so..

  5. ejh said,

    June 14, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    Where Andre Sullivan writes

    a lovely gesture from the regime taken direct from Machiavelli

    where exactly in Machiaevlli is he thinking of?

  6. IslingtonSet said,

    June 14, 2009 at 4:04 pm

    I don’t know, I’m not his spokesperson. Maybe he means rather that catch-all term “Machiavellian” which has come to mean anything devious or untoward.

    Or maybe its somewhere in the Discourses.

  7. ejh said,

    June 14, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    Ah well, I did wonder whether “direct” meant “not that I’ve read him, mind”.

  8. ejh said,

    June 14, 2009 at 4:36 pm

    Incidentally I think John Simpson is rather better than the OP suggests – or normally better, given this in which he states:

    the Shah, who lost his throne because he tried to westernise Iran too quickly

    Ah, not just that, perhaps John?

    (By the way, should anybody think that I’m posting a lot of comments not really dealing with the fraud issue, yes I am, sorry about that, Cole is indeed very good and for the record, my view as a leftist of thirty years’ standing is that people don’t go out and go nuts of the street for no reason. I do think those Sullivan figures are bunk, though.)

  9. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 14, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    Usually I like Simpson, although he’s best when he’s given a bit of space. Op-ed pieces written at very short notice don’t show him (or any correspondent) at his best.

    Yes, the Madrid thing. I’m no expert in Spanish politics, but I do know something about Basque politics, and it’s a bit of a bugbear that Madrid-based correspondents seem to have quite a shaky grasp of the Basques. It would help to have someone who goes up there on a semi-regular basis and actually talks to the actors. I’ve seen one too many reports that just recycled PSOE talking points.

  10. ejh said,

    June 14, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    Well, that would be standard issue anyway: I mean they could go to Bilbao and talk to PSOE there and get the same stuff. But yes, of course they should go and talk to some people who don’t agree, I mean that’s the point, isn’t it?

    But the other point is that it wouldn’t hurt to go to other places too. (Like Vigo for instance.) And that way maybe you wouldn’t have that tool Mardell coming here and telling me the general election’s all about house prices (number of mentions of house prices seen or heard by me in pre-election commentary = nil, though admittedly I do live five hours’ drive from Madrid).

  11. charliethechulo said,

    June 14, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    Wherever there’s authoritarianism, even semi-fascist (like Slobo) and clerical fascist (like Dinnerjacket), you’ll back it won’t you/ As long as it’s anti “western”, of course. and I note that you think “ultra-nationalism” and the peasantry are sort-of good, whilst the EU and liberal bourgeoise democracy are sort-of bad. Yo’re a third-period Stalinist, aren’t you?

  12. WorldbyStorm said,

    June 14, 2009 at 8:19 pm

    Hmmm… not sure that’s fair charliethechulo. Still, on a different tack I was thinking about SMER’s mates in Slovakia who, along with SMER, signed a letter to the PES saying they’d eschew their anti-Gypsy, anti-gay, anti-Hungarian speeches. Result? SMER are more or less back in the bosom of the great socialist/social democratic family. And then if we think about the Socialist Party in Serbia… so is the lesson that when push comes to shove, or alternatively they get a sniff of power, in the door they’ll rush as fast as their feet can carry them. Which perhaps goes to prove that agency isn’t gifted to the West/EU or whoever in these situations and almost anyone will make compromises if they think they can rise and prosper.

    Not sure about the Iranian situation. Seems a little less clear cut there, can’t help but find it a tad suspicious that the regime flouted their own regulations as regards challenges to results and a remarkably rapid announcement of the later. I’d suspect that they weren’t keen to go to a run-off even if Ahmadinejad was best out of four… regimes don’t like the potential for surprises after all, even at the best of times.

    Koštunica, entirely agree, not a bad guy at all. And certainly no semi-fascist or even authoritarian he.

  13. IslingtonSet said,

    June 14, 2009 at 8:46 pm

    I think it is unfair/inaccurate/impolite to impugn someone’s personality like that. So, leaving this weblog aside for a moment, I have noticed there is probably a lot more equanimity and equivocation on this issue from the socialist left than perhaps there should be. Certainly it seems that Sullivan/Cole, unencumbered by the imperialist/anti-imperialist framework have shown remarkable support and solidarity for the Iranians who are, let’s face it, on the streets of Tehran right now. Even a group like “Hands off the People of Iran” seem rather reluctant to take a stand. Is the concern that coming out against AhmadiNejad and Khameini might provide grist for Podhoretz’s mill overriding the fact that… they’re on the streets, fighting an authoritarian state?

  14. Doloras said,

    June 14, 2009 at 10:06 pm

    The “Iranians” are indeed “on the streets of Tehran right now” – cheering President Ahmedinejad’s victory. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8099501.stm Come on now, you’re smarter than to take Western TV pictures at face value.

    Anyone with half a brain knows that this is how the CIA/NED try to overthrow unpleasant governments these days – they wait for election times, then start violent street protests yelling FRAUD if the people they don’t like win. The funniest thing was this strategy in the December 2007 referendum in Venezuela – the oppos were all on the streets with their ¡FRAUDO! T-shirts, and then the results came in that their side had actually won and they had no idea what to do.

  15. IslingtonSet said,

    June 14, 2009 at 11:27 pm

    I think, Doloras, that you haven’t been reading too many Iranian blogs recently or Twitter (don’t worry, I don’t know how it works either). Its very easy to say any uprising in a foreign country against the powers that be is CIA-sponsored, especially if those powers that be happen to be “anti-American”. But then you find yourself on the wrong side of Tiananmen and Wenceslas Squares – a pretty bad place to be, by my lights.

    Still, flattery is the key to my heart, so you are quite perceptive and enterprising in that regard but I hasten to add that I won’t be accused of “taking Western TV pictures at face value” by someone linking to the BBC website as if it was a slam-dunk.

    Its also been quite noticeable that a lot of the Western right have been fairly ambivalent, some even wanting an Ahmadinejad victory. I’m not particularly interested in the candidates – I just want Iranian votes to count, and right now we have a potentially revolutionary situation. Which side are you on?

  16. Doloras said,

    June 14, 2009 at 11:54 pm

    “Which side am I on?” Who the frack are you, George Bush?

    No we do not have a revolutionary situation. This is Serbia 2000, Ukraine ’04, Lebanon ’05, Thailand ’08, and Moldova Last April all over again – street gangs sponsored by CIA/NED paid to take to the streets and raise havoc to cast doubt on an election victory by The Bad Guys. You think you’d learn what a totally fraudulent “colour revolution” looks like by now, we’ve had enough. I bet you someone on this rally will be raising the “Otpor!” clenched fist logo.

    Of course the blogosphere is jumping on the bandwagon. The blogosphere is made up of middle-class liberals who are always, and in every country, utterly manipulated by the CIA/NED memetic-propaganda machine.

  17. IslingtonSet said,

    June 15, 2009 at 12:02 am

    Actually, I think Pete Seeger got there before our man from Texas. But then again we all know Seeger was a CIA/NED stooge and therefore… (continue ad nauseum)

  18. Doloras said,

    June 15, 2009 at 2:08 am

    And if this was a union struggle, or a struggle between workers and bosses, or between socialists and capitalists, your lazy and self-serving comparison might mean something. Instead, it’s a struggle between the pro-capitalist Westernized middle-classes and pro-capitalist conservative populism, and believing that socialists should have a side in such a struggle is exactly the broad way to B-52 leftism.

  19. prianikoff said,

    June 15, 2009 at 8:21 am

    “…it’s a struggle between the pro-capitalist Westernized middle-classes and pro-capitalist conservative populism”

    The term “conservative” in such contexts can be very misleading journalese. In Russia and Iran it’s often applied by the press to people who want to resist the “free market”. The idea being that this is somehow “modern”, “dynamic” and “progressive”.
    Ahmedinejad’s populism is more in tune with Nasser or Peron, in that he is directing state spending to the poor and is seen to defend Iran’s national independence.
    The “pro-capitalist conservatives” amongst the Clergy are represented by Rafsanjani, with whom Ahmedinejad has clashed over policy. If anything it was Mousavi who was his candidate.
    Other than the obvious disappointment of those who were aiming at democratic regime change, no substantive evidence has emerged of ballot-rigging on the scale required to achieve 2/3rds of the vote.
    Less than in the Bush vs Gore election.
    Furthermore the numbers on the streets protesting aren’t convincing evidence of a national popular movement.
    The fact is that the only opposition to the Islamic regime and the demagogic policies of Ahmedinejad will be a revival of the working class movement that build workers councils during the Iranian revolution and was hijacked by the Mullahs.

  20. Sima said,

    June 15, 2009 at 11:13 am

    That Kostunica DDS’ steadily lost power and has been voted out of government is one sign that many Serbians believe he is a foot-dragging nationalist whose sole articulated policy was territorial integrity – without a tangible plan for politically or economically integrating Kosovo or intention or ability to advance any other reform within Serbia. He is widely credited with stagnating the country for many years.

    April incidents in Moldova were not planned attempt at a revolution. Anyone who had spent time there or paid attention to political forces before April 7 knows that there was no organized or capable effort towards political change. That the Communists won the election was no surprise. That they won it with such a large margin – in contrast to latest polls and recent local elections – gave rise to suspicions. But the initial gathering on April 6 was a tepid affair – no signs, bullhorns, or speeches. Just a few candles to mourn the results. It remains to be seen how the April 7 protest turned violent. But it cannot be ignored that the Communists were conveniently one seat away from a constitutional majority, and that discrediting they opposition may serve them well in repeated election.

  21. June 15, 2009 at 8:08 pm

    […] Posted on June 15, 2009 by Liam I’ve a lot of sympathy for what Mr Splintered wrote yesterday about Iran and the way it’s being reported. To keep things ticking over […]

  22. johng said,

    June 20, 2009 at 9:21 am

    I thought this was a thought provoking piece:

    http://www.cinestatic.com/infinitethought/2009/06/why-are-iranians-dreaming-again.asp


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