"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