The Qantas Media Awards, TVNZ and reporting on Iran

Misleading media reporting is fuelling misperceptions of Iran, and even the BSA has recently backed me in that claim

So ONE News has won the Qantas Award for Best News for the third year in a row. Big deal. It's not as though it really had any serious competition.
Understandably keen to milk this accolade, TVNZ’s Head of News, Current Affairs and Sport, Anthony Flannery, said, "We strive to bring our viewers journalism excellence every day and winning Best News three times in a row really demonstrates our commitment to that".

Yet his grandiose comments came just one day before TVNZ was censured by the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) following a complaint that I laid regarding a May 4 news item on Iran.

The BSA upheld the first part of my complaint, deeming TVNZ to have breached the accuracy standard with reporting that was “careless and misleading”. The second part of my complaint was not upheld on the grounds that it was background to the main story and therefore considered “not material to the item”. To date, this particular decision by the BSA has not attracted a single mention in any media outlet.

This ruling (and the failure of our mainstream media to pick up on it) shouldn't come as a surprise. In Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky alluded to the interplay between the media and dominant political interests. There is a growing belief that many Western media outlets are ‘softening up’ the public for military strikes against Iran, despite the lack of any conclusive evidence that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. This was the identical strategy used during the lead up to the Iraq war, where the mainstream media was largely complicit in perpetuating the myth of Saddam’s (vanishing) ‘weapons of mass destruction’ – a lie that led to an illegal war costing the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians.

While our government appears to have instructed its diplomats to walk out whenever the Iranian President takes the podium (an ‘up yours’ gesture that is particularly ironic given how quick we are to preach about the virtues of freedom of speech – what is the use if we are not prepared to listen?), TVNZ’s reporting of such events has contributed to the perception that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is an irrational madman, hell bent on acquiring nuclear weapons and committed to the destruction of the state of Israel.

Unfortunately, such myths have become accepted as fact. But there are many aspects to this diverse and complex country that are rarely reported and little known.

Ahmadinejad himself is an astute politician whose provocative speeches often strike at home truths that some undoubtedly find unpalatable. His recent addresses to the United Nations [read the 2009 speech here and the 2010 speech here] have been far reaching and have included calls for reform of the global body itself, change to the prevailing inequitable global economic system, and reform of international political relations based on the elimination of all nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

Of course, he has also criticised the Israeli regime regarding its ongoing illegal occupation of the West Bank and brutal treatment of the Palestinians during the 2008/2009 war in the Gaza strip, sentiments which have been echoed by numerous respected global personalities and organisations, but which TVNZ has previously brushed aside as ‘mindless hate’ or ‘racism’.

The Iranian President also knows how to play to a domestic audience. Addressing this year’s session of the General Assembly, Ahmadinejad has drawn fierce criticism for alluding to various conspiracy theories behind 9/11 – yet the reality is that these beliefs abound across many parts of the world, especially in the Middle East. And it is ironic that far more books and documentaries questioning official accounts of 9/11 have emerged out of the United States than any other country.

More balanced reporting on Iran would give New Zealanders a much better understanding of a country that is widely misunderstood in the West. Iran has a long and rich cultural heritage, of which the post-1979 Islamic theocracy is just one facet. It is also a country with an enduring collective memory of foreign invasions, humiliations and meddling in its internal affairs (including the infamous CIA-backed overthrow of the democratically elected Mossadegh government in 1953, and Western support for Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in 1981.) It now finds itself surrounded by hostile forces on virtually all its borders and subject to incessant talk of being bombed on grounds that are dubious, to say the least, if not utterly hypocritical.

Contrary to widespread perception, and despite the disputed 2009 election, Iran still has greater social and political freedoms than many countries in the region backed by the West. While Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani's sentence to death by stoning rightly drew international condemnation, there is little doubt that her plight was cynically manipulated for political purposes. Iranian women are much more empowered than their counterparts in Saudi Arabia, a country which routinely carries out public beheadings and to which the United States stands poised to sell up to $60 billion dollars worth of sophisticated weaponry.

Prior to Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, 90% of women in rural areas of the country were illiterate, yet today, among Iranian girls aged 15 to 24, there is 97% literacy nationwide. Two-thirds of Iranian university students are female, as are a third of all doctors, 60% of civil servants and 80% of teachers. Outside of Israel, Iran also has the largest Jewish community in the region, with Tehran alone having 11 functioning synagogues. Christianity and Judaism are protected as officially recognized religions and given reserved seats in the Majlis, the Iranian Parliament.

Continuing efforts to demonize Iran and its leadership are counterproductive and duplicitous. They will only embolden the current regime and strengthen nationalist sentiment. TVNZ should take serious heed of the BSA’s latest censure.

Its self-satisfaction at winning the Qantas Award for Best News rings hollow – the event has become little more than a glorified marketing opportunity for the airline that brands itself the ‘Spirit of Australia’. As taxpayers, we deserve better from our nation’s largest public free-to-air broadcaster.