Press TV, the Iranian state-funded news channel, loses UK licence

The controversial broadcaster has been taken off the air after Ofcom ruled it was in breach of licen

Press TV, the Iranian state-funded news channel, is to be taken off the air in Britain after Ofcom ruled that it was breaching broadcasting rules.

The channel has responded with outrage, calling the decision "scandalous" and a "clear example of censorship". Its chief executive, Mohammad Sarafraz, said that it was "an act of aggression by the British monarchy" which "will prevent the British from learning the truth". (NB. Iranian TV has form on erroneously calling out the British monarchy)

Yet it is not entirely out of the blue: the controversial broadcaster was threatened with a ban last year, after it emerged that it had aired an interview with Maziar Bahari, a Newsweek journalist, while he was imprisoned in Iran in 2009.

Rather than banning the channel outright, after hearing submissions Ofcom finally settled on a £100,000 fine in December 2011. However, Press TV failed to meet the early January deadline for paying the fine. Ofcom said that the broadcaster has been "unwilling and unable" to pay it.

This is not the only reason that Ofcom has given: it also ruled that Press TV is in breach of broadcasting licence rules in the UK because it runs its editorial insight from Iran's capital, Tehran. The regulator wrote to Press TV about this in November, offering a choice of either switching editorial control for programming to the UK, or to transfer the broadcasting licence to Iran. According to Ofcom, Press TV has not responded.

These technical explanations are all very well, but it is difficult not to view this in the context of escalating tension between Iran and Britain (my colleague Mehdi Hasan has blogged extensively on this). The country's nuclear programme has drawn ire from the west, and in November, Britain closed Iran's embassy in London and expelled all diplomats, after the British embassy in Tehran was attacked by a crowd angry at sanctions.

Certainly, the channel's fans will (rightly or wrongly) view it in this light. In October last year, Press TV ran a poll in which 52 per cent of respondents said that Ofcom's attempts to get the channel taken off air was "an instance of intellectual terrorism". The instant reaction on Twitter shows many concerned about free speech (although others are cheering the decision). Salma Yaqoob, the leader of the Respect Party, tweeted: "Reality is we r seeing increased hostility and preparation for attack on #Iran".

While this has been rumbling on for months, things are now moving fast. Ofcom has contacted BSkyB, which broadcasts Press TV, to tell them to take the channel off the air before the end of the day. It appears the plug has already been pulled, although it can still be viewed online.

Regardless of the technicality -- and certainly, Press TV played a significant part and displayed belligerence by failing to take action -- this move will be seen as highly symbolic. It is yet another area where tension with Iran is escalating.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.