Book me a slot on Press TV

Appearing on a news channel owned by the mullahocracy is one way of fostering much-needed dialogue b

"We know of no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality," wrote Lord Macaulay nearly two centuries ago. But Macaulay didn’t live to witness the modern British commentariat.

In recent days, columnists and bloggers, on both left and right, have worked themselves up over whether British journalists should appear on the Iranian-owned satellite news channel Press TV.

LBC’s Nick Ferrari provoked the row by resigning as a Press TV presenter in protest at the Iranian government’s crushing of demonstrations in the wake of the June presidential elections. Others, including
Peter Wilby, writing in the New Statesman, and the Tory blogger Iain Dale, boldly announced that they would no longer appear as guests on the channel, as if they had not been aware, when they were happily collecting cheques from Press TV, that the channel was owned and funded by the mullahocracy in Iran.

Or perhaps they did know, and it was only the sight of the Basij militia cracking student skulls on the campus of Tehran University that finally shook their journalistic consciences and reminded them of just how awful the Iranian regime was.

I have never appeared on Press TV, nor have I ever received a payment from the Iranian government. Nor, for that matter, do I support the regime in Tehran. Nonetheless, I would not hesitate to appear on the channel were I to be invited and I am bemused by, among others, Dominic Lawson, who used his Sunday Times column to name and shame what he called “Iran’s British stooges”, including the former Express journalist Yvonne Ridley; Cherie Blair’s half-sister Lauren Booth and the Telegraph’s new London editor, Andrew Gilligan, who have refused to follow Ferrari’s lead and quit their shows on the channel.

Lawson rails against the alleged anti-Semitism of Press TV but, as editor of the Spectator, published an article in 1994 which claimed that Hollywood was run by a “Jewish cabal”. And it is odd to read him accusing Press TV presenters of being “stooges”, as he himself has been accused by, among others, the former Labour MP Brian Sedgemore and a former MI6 officer, Richard Tomlinson, of being a British government spy. Lawson has always denied the charge – but has, however, admitted to (unintentionally) publishing in the Spectator two pieces from the Balkans that were written by an employee of the UK security services. In the words of the British Journalism Review, “for an editor, it must be a bad idea to end up in a position where an MI6 officer is writing for your publication on matters of political controversy, under a false name. Transparency is better.”

So who else has been having a go at Press TV? The ubiquitous Rod Liddle, in his Spectator column, denounced his old friend Andrew Gilligan for taking the ayatollahs’ shilling, and warned against journalists blurring “the edges of right and wrong” with their “twisted morality”. It is always amusing to see a man who ditched his wife on honeymoon for a secret tryst with his mistress lecturing the rest of us on morals. Liddle attacks Press TV for its illiberalism – yet, in his own journalism, has seemed to have a soft spot for white fascists such as Nick Griffin and Muslim extremists such as Abu Hamza; under his editorship of the Today programme, both men were offered prestigious interview slots. Iain Dale has also argued for the right of the British National Party to appear on the BBC, but has decided no longer to appear himself on Press TV. Dale and Liddle, it seems, are keen for us to engage with domestic extremists, but not foreign ones.

Journalistic hypocrisy and cant aside, it is difficult to understand the basic philosophical objection to appearing on Press TV. Is it because the channel is state-funded? Then why the obsession with Press TV? The BBC is state-funded, as is France 24, Russia Today and al-Jazeera. Is it perhaps because of the particular state involved? Iran is accused of human rights abuses and support for terrorism. Yet Saudi Arabia has a far worse record on both these issues – and that has not stopped Barack Obama or Gordon Brown from appearing, without any controversy, on the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya news channel.

Or is this all about biased broadcasting? The TV regulator Ofcom has yet to issue a verdict on Press TV but, in 2004, it denounced the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News for failing to “respect the truth” and basing its opinions on “false evidence”.

In truth, there are only two relevant issues at stake here. First, does appearing on Press TV legitimise the Iranian regime? Not necessarily: as long as one is allowed to air one’s views freely – and not a single critic so far has claimed that his or her views were ever censored – it should be possible to appear as a guest on Press TV and criticise, say, the flawed elections in Iran.

Second, does appearing on the channel help foster much-needed dialogue and debate between the west and the Middle East? My view is that engaging with Iran, no matter who is in charge in Tehran, is a prerequisite for peace and progress in the region. The very fact that Press TV is Iranian-owned makes it the ideal English-language platform on which to do so. Why can’t its growing army of sanctimonious media critics see that?

Mehdi Hasan is the New Statesman’s senior editor (politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, King and Country

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide