If I was coming across there as being a little jaundiced towards the journalistic profession, that’s not because of any generalised dislike of the people in it, or a lack of understanding of the pressures they work under. Possibly it’s too much awareness of those pressures, combined with a knowledge of how embedded journalists operated here during the Troubles. Perhaps some day we’ll get to find out exactly which gentlemen of the press were on the payroll, but that doesn’t really matter. More to the point is that the NIO at the time had an enormous media centre, bigger even than the Downing Street press office, and the easiest thing to do was to rely on official sources. Of course there have been journalists, like Ed Moloney or Suzanne Breen, who’ve cultivated alternative sources, but that hasn’t been unproblematic in itself.
And so we return to Iran, and the furious reaction to an election that seems to be no more crooked than the usual Iranian election, including those that Mir-Hossein Mousavi won when he was prime minister. There were two little pointers on the news this morning that I thought were revealing. One was John Simpson saying that, in the runup to the election, the people contacting the BBC’s office in Tehran were convinced that Mousavi was going to win by a landslide, and were deeply shocked when he didn’t. Simpson, to his credit, seemed to have some awareness that this was a self-selecting sample, and views in Red State Iran might have been rather different. (To bring it home, it’s worth considering this account of why the Belfast media consistently underestimated Jim Allister’s support. Yvette Shapiro’s vox pops in Ballymena on today’s Politics Show were interesting, but a little after the fact.)
The second thing that interested me was Mr Ahmadinejad’s press conference, where he dealt with this question of the foreign media. This army of correspondents, he said, had come to Iran without much knowledge of the Iranian people, but with plenty of preconceptions, and they had become irate when reality didn’t match those preconceptions. Of course, Ahmadinejad was being more than a little self-serving, but I think he was onto something.
Yes, this issue of conceptual frameworks is always worth a look. How is it, I wonder, that Mousavi got the “moderate” and “reformer” labels? I’m not his biographer, but what I mostly remembered about Mousavi was his role in the mass murder of thousands of Iranian socialists. Not, perhaps, the most obvious person for Euro-American left-liberals to get behind. Part of this, I think, is simply that Ahmadinejad has become such a bogeyman that it’s easy to skate over inconvenient facts about his opponents. There’s also the issue of the candidates’ platforms. The appeal of Ahmadinejad’s nationalism is easy to understand; so, although it’s been very badly handled in practice, is his redistributive economic policy. But their appeal is to the sort of people western journalists don’t usually talk to. Mousavi stood for a more thoroughgoing neoliberal economic policy, but that isn’t really important. His selling points, what gave him his moderate credentials, were his stance in favour of a slight liberalisation of the female dress code and a slightly more emollient approach to the Americans. These are issues that appeal to western journalists, and also appeal to the north Tehran bourgeoisie who the journalists are most likely to talk to.
There’s a further aspect to this, which is illustrated by John Simpson’s op-ed piece today. (I should say that I like John Simpson and don’t really want to pick on him, it’s just that he’s on the ground and says some things worth paying attention to. [Hat tip to Justin, by the way.]) This is the framing of the election in terms of what it means for “The West”. It must be stressed that, theoretically at least, democracy in Iran or Bolivia or Nicaragua, however imperfect it may be, is about the electorate of that country choosing a government for that country. It isn’t supposed to be a charade whose preferred outcome is determined by what’s most convenient for US-EU geopolitics. What’s transgressive is when the mask slips – when Barroso and Solana, for instance, go around bullying east European governments, some of them actual members of the EU. Or you find it with certain commentators – Ian Traynor leaps to mind – who really seem to believe that the world should be run on this basis.
One may also ask how much of this has to do with state actors and how much has to do with simple wish fulfilment on the part of genuine liberal idealists. I think this is variable. When a great hue and cry suddenly goes up about some tinpot regime being a threat to the civilised world, there isn’t always a rat to be found, but it’s worth sniffing the air all the same. If I sometimes single out Ian Traynor for criticism, it’s because I have a fair knowledge of eastern Europe, try to keep up to speed with what’s going on there, and so can often recognise whose talking points he’s relying on even if he doesn’t directly cite them.
But then, you have the variation. Take the British media’s campaign around Zimbabwe, and it why-oh-whying about the lack of intervention to topple Uncle Bob. Amusingly, this went against the strategy of the MDC, whose middle initial does not stand for “Decent”, and who always put their faith in the internal political process, backed up by (largely African) diplomacy. Without wanting to call into question the genuine outrage of journalists on the ground about Mugabe’s actions (in some ways, op-ed writers in the office are more revealing), I’m certain that this campaign was encouraged by the British government, not least as a substitute for doing anything itself. On the other hand, the British media’s occasional campaigns around Tibet are much more media-driven, relying on Free Tibet camapigners and Buddhist celebrities but not getting much go-ahead from the government, which doesn’t really want to upset Beijing. Not to mention that there are much worse atrocities – the war in DR Congo springs to mind – which barely get mentioned at all.
So there you are. The institutional constraints aren’t really something we can do much about. What’s worth considering is whether you can make any headway against the preconceptions of the echo chamber.