I’m a bit of a follower of Press TV, the Iranian propaganda channel. The broadcaster’s website is a hilarious but unnerving mix of straight out conspiracy theory - the Iranian state is so keen on pushing 9/11 Truthers that Al Qaeda reportedly issued a statement demanding is stopped denying them the credit for the attack - and the kind of half truth misinformation that Russia Today is so very good at: for example, a recent story about a rise in the number of people living on houseboats in London was combined with well-documented London housing price bubble stories to create a “impoverished desperate Londoners live in ‘floating shacks’” story.
Most sensible people would never dream of appearing on Press TV, leaving it to the likes of George Galloway (and every so often Labour leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn).
I’ve been on Press TV twice. In my defence, I was young(er) and a little bit distracted. The first instance was some time in 2008. I don’t really remember what the topic was, but a fresh-out-of-university journalist I sort of knew asked me if I’d provide comment on some story or other. She had joined Press TV, keen to gain broadcast experience, and was well aware of its, well, shortcomings.
I asked what it was like working there: “It’s odd,” she answered. “No matter what the story is, I mean no matter what, they try to find an Israel angle.”
The second time I allowed myself to be used by the propaganda wing of the Islamic Republic of Iran was in January 2009, specifically the day of President Obama’s inauguration. It was also the time of Operation Cast Lead, as once again, Israel and Hamas launched projectiles at each other and accusations of bias at the international media.
The BBC, more than any other media organisation, found itself being shot by both sides, usually a good sign for journalists. While I was watching the build-up to the inauguration (a particular, er, highlight of which was Jon Snow and Christopher Hitchens standing on a DC balcony, with Hitchens gamely speculating on who might be inside various limousines that went past), a Press TV researcher called me, to ask my opinion on whether the BBC’s coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict had a pro-Israel slant. I told him I didn’t think it did: Both sides in the latest engagement were making it very difficult for journalists to operate, and in the circumstances the BBC was doing an excellent job.
Would I come on Press TV and say that? Fine, I said, eager to get back to watching Christopher Hitchens pointing at cars.
Presently a car arrived to take me to the Press TV studio in west London. The driver and I chatted about Obama: momentous occasion... possibility of thaw in relations between US and Iran... (and here we are, just six years later...).
We arrived at the studio, a smallish space on a light industrial estate. I was buzzed into reception, where a giant portrait of the Ayatollah Khomeini stared down at me. There was a thick lingering cloud of cigarette smoke, which was odd, as smoking in the workplace had been made illegal 18 months previously. John Rees of the Stop The War Coalition emerged from the studio: we nodded politely as he made for the exit.
An Iranian producer emerged from the control room, fag in mouth: “Hello Mr Padraig. Thank you for coming. You will say that BBC is biased towards Israel, yes?”
Well, no. I explained to him what I had told the researcher, that I thought the BBC was not biased either way and was doing good work in difficult circumstances. He looked perplexed. “One moment,” he said, before walking through a door into another room, from which I could hear an intense conversation in Farsi among several men.
Eventually he re-emerged to usher me into the studio.
It was a black box of a space, with a bank of TV screens on one side, and a small desk with a microphone. This, in itself, is not unusual. The giant talking heads you see on the BBC and Sky News, normally against a backdrop of, say, the Houses of Parliament or L’Arc de Triomphe, are usually sitting alone in a dark room about the size of an under-the-stairs toilet. Remember that the next time you see Bernard-Henri Lévy on Newsnight.
What was different was this: normally, or at least often, there is a TV screen, showing the studio you are being fed into, and an earpiece linking you to them. I assumed I was about to be connected to a studio in Tehran, and that any moment, one of the TV screens would flicker into action, and a voice would emerge in my ear: “This is the Tehran studio. Can you hear us? Going live in two minutes.” That sort of thing.
What happened instead was that a bank of lights lit up, shining directly into my eyes and momentarily blinding me. As if this wasn’t bad enough, a voice suddenly boomed into my ear: “NOW TALK!”. It was every bit an interrogation scene from a Cold War thriller.
Having recovered my senses, I spoke into the microphone. “Talk about what?” I asked. “About the BBC’s pro-Israel bias,” came the reply. “But I don’t think the BBC is pro-Israel,” I said, again. Awkward silence.
“Maybe you could ask me a question, and I could answer it,” I suggested. “OK,” returned the voice in the earpiece. “Why does the BBC have a pro-Israel bias?”
I sighed, and repeated what had become my mantra for the day: “Hard job...difficult circumstances...fault on all sides...”
After I had answered one question, there was a brusque “Thank You, that’s all.”
To paraphrase the great Peter O'Hanra-hanrahan, they didn’t like it, but they were going to have to go along with it. I have no idea if they ever used the piece. In fact, it could have been live for all I knew.
I unplugged my earpiece and made for the door. The producer, looking slightly confused by my utter uselessness, approached me slightly reproachfully. "Thank you," he said. “Lady Renouf recommended you,” he added.
High praise indeed: I had met Michele Renouf in 2008, while covering the extradition case of Frederick Töben , an Australian wanted in Germany for Holocaust denial. Renouf is well known for her interesting views on the Shoah and the Jewish people in general. She was also a frequent guest on Press TV, and clearly offering a helping hand with booking guests too. The previous Christmas, she had sent me a Christmas card featuring a photo of herself and Töben at the International "Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust" held in Tehran in 2006. They had been selected for the "International Fact Finding Committee on the Holocaust". I do not know if that body has yet reported.
My dismal performance meant that sadly, I was not invited back. I was also not offered an appearance fee, which was frustrating as I’d hoped to donate it to a cause the Islamic Republic would disapprove of, such as gay rights, or common decency.
A couple years later, in 2011, I had my last run in with Press TV, when I reported on a rather more stressful interview than I had gone through. Ofcom, the British communications regulator, had found Press TV guilty of broadcasting a forced interview with jailed journalist Maziar Bahari. I was contacted by Press TV, who claimed I had libelled the corporation with my use of the word “forced”. The actual wording of the ruling said that Bahari had been interviewed “under duress”. It would have been funny to see them attempt to split hairs on that issue in court, but of course it never got that far. With considerable chutzpah (if that is the mot juste) they also accused me of inciting religious hatred. This, also, came to nothing.
Press TV trundles along without me, peddling its “alternative” view of world affairs and providing some level of care in the community for publicity hungry cranks such as former Liberal Democrat MP and Cheeky Girl-toucher Lembit Opik.
Does it matter? Some claim that Press TV is independent of the state, but in the labyrinth of the Islamic Republic’s administration, nothing is truly independent. So it’s worth paying attention to what it’s doing. The paranoia that runs through all of Press TV’s coverage is a hallmark of any media in autocratic regimes. But even more so is the willingness to bend and even break the truth to one’s own purposes.
Talking about the revolution that brought the Islamic Republic into being, Michel Foucault famously said that Iranians “don’t have the same regime of truth as us...” as it was modelled on a religion that has “an exoteric form and an esoteric content”.
I doubt there’s anything specific in Shiaism, any more than any other religion, that leads to different standards of truth, but Foucault's description works well for the media of an autocratic state, and particularly a revolutionary autocratic state. The lies are more than mere falsehoods to hoodwink gullible people. They are part of an attempt to mould truth itself. There is something far more profound than first appears to Press TV’s claim to be an “alternative” news source.