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.

Comments (9)

by Tim Watkin on September 28, 2010
Tim Watkin

I take your wider point, but I think you've taken your argument too far. No newsdesk in New Zealand on a Tuesday night in autumn has any "interplay" with "dominant political interests" or a "softening up" agenda.

It may rely too heavily on foreign media sources with some ownership links, or it may be that a journalist is in too much of a hurry to get home. But in this instance the BSA used the word "careless", not brow-beaten, corrupt or pressured from above to describe this case, and I'm sure that's a more accurate description of these of kinds of mistakes in most local newsrooms.

And I think you also go too far defending Ahmadinejad. You can admire the chances Iranian women get for education and note the forbearance shown towards a large Jewish community, but also accept that the president is a liar, irrational and a danger to the region. His calls to reform the UN are in accord with many others and he is an astute politician, but at the same time, calling him "racist" and describing some of his commentary as "mindless hate" is consistent with fact. And yes, there are thousands of crazy 9/11 conspiracy nutters around the world; that he is one of many does not excuse him from criticism for trying to manipulate that deadly attack to his own ends.

Hundreds of protesters remain in prison in Iran and Ashtiani, now rather than being stoned, is to be hanged for murder. So let's not get to wound up in criticising reporters on one hand, that we go so far as to defend the indefensible on the other.

by Claire Browning on September 29, 2010
Claire Browning

TVNZ’s reporting of such events has contributed to the perception that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is an irrational madman ... Unfortunately, such myths have become accepted as fact.

You can watch Ahmadinejad for yourself here on ABC's This Week (+ transcript here). He had the chance to speak up for himself, in a long form interview; if people perceive him as dangerously irrational and, frankly, nuts, this may not always be the fault of the reporting. That show screened on TVNZ, albeit 7, free to air, two weeks ago. A solid half hour of the 50 mins was about Iran.

I know kicking TVNZ is sort of our national pastime. I indulge in this about as much as everyone else, and don't disagree with you, about it being in danger of believing its own hype. But Tim Wilson being a bit slack one day, which I think was the essence of your complaint, does not a whole rotten network make.

They've a tougher road to travel than RNZ, everyone's pet: I think we could cut them some slack, or at least, leaven the criticism.

by Justin Maloney on September 29, 2010
Justin Maloney

Continuing efforts to demonize Iran and its leadership are counterproductive and duplicitous. They will only embolden the current regime and strengthen nationalist sentiment.

This is true, however condoning or supporting adds legitimacy to a regime which is not entirely pure as the driven snow...

I take your point though and do think the media has a duty to ensure its reporting is balanced. Unfortunately, sadly even, as you point out this is not always the case. I dont think there is any conspiracy here, usually the culprit is time. Sadly the days where each publication had hundreds of altruistic reporters spent aeons researching good stories are gone.

by Sanji Gunasekara on September 29, 2010
Sanji Gunasekara

Thanks for your comments. I accept that TVNZ's censure by the BSA in this instance may well have been due to carelessness/time constraints, but the problem is that it is feeding into negative stereotypes and hype which may well fuel another disastrous war.

It is not my intention to defend Ahmadinejad but I would be curious as to what you feel he has actually said that constitutes "mindless hate" or "racism". His alleged threat to "wipe Israel off the map" was based on totally erroneous reporting. His actual words (in Farsi) were "Imam ghoft een rezhim-e ishghalgar-e qods bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shavad." This translates as "The Imam said this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time". He is quoting the words of Ayatollah Khomeini, and this is actually a flowery Persian way of calling for 'regime change.' It should also be seen in the context of his overall speech (in which the previous examples he cited included the Soviet Union and Saddam Hussein's Baath regime).

Ahmadinejad's opposition to Zionism is well known. Yet I’m not sure how this can be attributed as “racism” or “mindless hate”. There are many Jewish people that are also opposed to Zionism (including those currently on a boat attempting to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza). It was also not my intention to defend Iran's record on human rights - I merely wanted to point out the glaring double standards when it comes to the West pointing the finger over human rights issues and using this as a pretext to build support for sanctions/war.

Tim, I respectfully disagree with your belief that Ahmadinejad represents a threat to the region and suggest you read www.zcommunications.org/the-iranian-threat-by-noam-chomsky. I agree with you Claire that Ahmadinejad seems to enjoy toying with the foreign media - but it should be remembered that again, he is playing to a domestic audience (his interviews in the US are screened in Farsi back home). What may appear to a Western audience as a convoluted response to a question reflects his penchant for 'ta-arouf', a complex code of etiquette that exemplifies the Persian psyche - but that can be baffling and frustrating to Westerners.

Reporting of Ahmadinejad’s most recent speech was also taken out of context. His remarks about 9/11 were followed by his calls for a UN investigation into the events leading up to this incident, on the grounds that the 9/11 attacks were used to justify two subsequent wars which have claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands. This call is not as ludicrous as it may seem and has a precedent - the UN has previously been tasked with investigating terrorist attacks, including those that killed the former Lebanese and Pakistani Presidents. Once again, it seems that there are two sets of rules – one for the West, another for the rest.

by Mark Wilson on September 29, 2010
Mark Wilson

I am sorry but Ahmadinejad is barking mad based entirely on his own words. He has repeatedly, over many years called for the destruction of Israel and the Jews. To be an opologist for him is shameful.  

There can be no serious doubt, based on the Iranians buying of nuclear weapons technology from North Korea and Pakistan that they will make nuclear bombs and may well attempt to us them on Israel.

Ahmadinejad has already said that Israel is a one bomb state. If he commits genocide on the Jews what does the writer propose - that we send them an apology?

Exactly the same arguments were used to apologise for Hitler before he finally went too far.

by Richard James McIntosh on September 29, 2010
Richard James McIntosh

If it is true that the New Zealand representatives at the UN have been instructed to 'walk out' when the Iranian President speaks, then we should ask why is it so?

Consider this, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade website:

"New Zealand has had an Embassy in Tehran since 1975, making it New Zealand's longest-standing mission in the Middle East. In the year to June 2007 New Zealand exports to Iran were worth NZ$129.95 million, with butter, milk powder and wool being the major export commodities. Imports in the same period amounted to NZ$49.72 million and consisted mainly of petroleum products (91%) and dates and figs, along with smaller quantities of carpets and grapes. Iran is a growing market for a range of New Zealand products and services, including education, electronics, software systems, geothermal expertise and CNG technology, air traffic control services, agricultural technology and sophisticated construction materials."

So we trade with them.

But what do we know about them? Well, the Iranian Government is a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and states that it wants to enrich uranium for a domestic enrgy program. At that stage they could develop a nuclear weapon. This is the same for about 40 other states in the world, countries like Brazil, The Netherlands, and Australia, for example. Mark Wilson, I laugh heartily at the suggestion that these states have 'gone too far'.

But really, I would like to ask you all, especially Mark Wilson, do you really believe that the President of Iran does not know that Israel has nuclear-armed Dolphin-class submarines in the Persian Gulf, whose weapons would incinerate the cities of Iran within minutes of an Iranian strike against Israel? Do you think he really doesn't know that? No war approaches, and it is foolish to talk as if it were.

We are free to play diplomatic games at the UN, but it is hypocritical to do so in the service of Great-Power brinkmanship, especially as the 'case' against Iran hasn't even been proved (remember the one about the Iraqi dictator who was supposed to be able to deploy weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes?). Rather, we should be unsparing in our criticism of the recent electoral fraud perpetrated by their government, and of the Regime's brutal tactics in the aftermath of the election.

And get on with trading with these people, do you know what I mean? Nobody likes people who are two-faced.




by Mark Wilson on September 30, 2010
Mark Wilson

Mr McIntosh can't you read? 

I said Hitler went too far, not other states.

You are saying that we cannot take the Iranian government's own words as the truth when they repeatedly call for the utter destruction of of Israel but we can take their word when they say they are only building up nuclear power for electricity purposes, despite having installed technology that is only required for bomb production and despite refusing to allow the UN access to those facilities! That is not only niave but incredibly dangerous for Israel. 

The Iranians are the leading supporters of suicide bombers around the globe and their concept of Jihad is built on the principle that death is a small price to pay to rid the world of Infidels. Their religious leaders, have as enshrined policy, that failure to embrace Islam should result in death. Ahmadinejad and the Mullahs would take the complete destruction of Israel as worth the price of the devastation of Iran.

Of course their will be a war between Israel and Iran, it will just be a question of whether it starts before or after the Iranians get nukes. There can't be anybody in the Middle East who doesn't believe that their will be war, which is why every goverment is spending billions on rearming, not against any perceived threat from Israel but from a declared threat from Iran and Syria. 

I am not a Jew and have no contact with Israelis but this is the same apologist stuff that got six million of them killed in the Second World war while like minded people like you said it wouldn't / wasn't happening. It  will happen again if the Iranians have their way. Again I ask you, when, not if the Iranians get nuclear weapons and if they do use it what are you going to do - send the dead Israelis an apology?   The price of you being wrong is the genocide of 5 million more Jews, the price of me being wrong is permanent unrest in the Middle East.  

As the Iranian economy continues to deteriorates, their ever more desperate leaders will increase the threat levels and attempt, as all dictators do, to use imagined out side threats to divert attention from their corruption and incompetence.   


by Andrew Rudolph on October 01, 2010
Andrew Rudolph

If attacked by a Nuclear Armed Iran, Israel will retaliate with Nuclear Weapons as well - Even though they won't admit to it, yes they do have them. Both countries will be destroyed.

With both peoples annihilated, there'll be no one to 'punish' and no one to apologise to.

Ahmadinejad may be mad, but I don't think he's insane.

"their ever more desperate leaders will increase the threat levels and attempt, as all dictators do, to use imagined out side threats to divert attention from their corruption and incompetence."

This could also be a description of Western Leaders against Iran.

The truth is we (now) have very little faith in such saber-rattling, and see it as merely the barking of 'The Dogs Of War' eager for another people in which to sink their teeth into. And it is, the 'people' who will suffer (be they Israeli or Iranian).

The question is: Do we wish to see the 'Failure in Iraq' to be repeated in Iran? And will it simply be because we want their Oil?


by Chris de Lisle on October 03, 2010
Chris de Lisle

There is a serious dialogue issue between the West and the Islamic World (Indeed between the West and most other cultures of the world). It's very longstanding- Even Christians living in Islamic Spain did not know that Islam was monotheistic, for example. (& it actually went both ways- Ottoman Encyclopedias only noted the existence of Protestantism in the 1800s)

Even when we do show an interest, we tend to look to our own sources; the views of academics and the like rather than engaging with that world itself. Particularly egregious, to me, is Tabari's Annals, the most basic introductory text on Islamic history; which was only translated into English in 1985. Almost everything the West 'knows' about the Islamic world (& the Chinese, and the Indian) has had to pass through an academic bottleneck. Those academics' biases have been able to have a truly disproportionate influence on the West at large. 

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