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

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.