Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by BBC World Service


  The BBC is the best known foreign media organisation in Iran. This awareness comes mainly through the BBC Persian Service, but BBC World TV, BBC World Service radio in English and BBC Online all play a role. BBC News once again has a correspondent in Tehran. BBC Monitoring follows Iran's media: it translates, processes and analyses its sources and makes them available to a range of official and paying customers.


  The BBC Persian Service's broadcasts to Iran started on 28 December 1940 to counter the influence of German Radio in Persian from Berlin. The BBC's initial output was a modest hour per week centred on war news. In 1941, the allies entered Iran and removed from power the then pro-German nationalist Shah, Reza Pahlavi, replacing him with his young son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The BBC's reports on the Shah's cruelty and corruption were seen as a prelude to his departure. From the very outset, therefore, the BBC was regarded by many in Iran as an instrument of British imperial involvement. This was particularly true in the case of the young Shah himself. When Britain and the US supported the Shah's coup against the democratically elected prime minister, Dr Mossadeq, in August 1953, many nationalists criticised the BBC's broadcasts for playing a key pro-Shah and anti-Mossadeq role. On the other hand the Shah and his supporters blamed the BBC for the popular upheaval that ultimately brought about the Shah's downfall in February 1979.

  The Islamic regime which succeeded the Shah was no more sympathetic to the BBC. In 1980 the reporting of human rights abuses and social restrictions led to the expulsion of the BBC correspondent and the closure of the BBC office in Tehran. For 19 years the BBC covered Iran from London and through occasional short visits by correspondents. The leadership often blamed the outside world for internal difficulties, and the BBC often takes the brunt of that criticism. However, the climate of reform after the election of President Khatami in 1999 enabled the BBC to re-open a Tehran bureau with a resident correspondent.

  BBC Persian Service output is aimed not just at Iran but at the much larger Persian-speaking world. This counts almost 100 million speakers and stretches from the Gulf (visitors to Dubai will hear more Persian than Arabic), across Iran, across Afghanistan (where Persian was traditionally the language of education and often of the home too), and into Central Asia (Tajik is basically Persian written with the Cyrillic alphabet and it is the language not just of Tajikistan, but of the Tajiks who live in large numbers in Uzbekistan too). The BBC Persian Service has a small bureau in Dushanbe, capital of Tajikistan and another larger joint bureau with the Pashto Service in Peshawar, Pakistan, which is also home to BBC Afghan Education Projects. For the last five years BBC AEP has produced a soap opera in Persian and Pashto for listeners in Afghanistan and this has become Afghanistan's hugely popular national entertainment. One BBC Persian transmission every day concentrates specifically on the needs and concerns of listeners in Afghanistan and Central Asia.

(a)   Output

  The Persian Service's current output is about 28 hours per week, made up of news, current affairs, educational and entertainment programmes. There are four daily transmissions containing news and analysis and two longer programmes each week for educational features and entertainment. There is a conscious attempt to focus on issues of special interest to young men and women. Among subjects tackled in the BBC Persian output over the past few years have been oral histories of Iran and Afghanistan, western trends and ideas, conflict resolution, sex education, concepts of justice and human rights in the Islamic world, women's rights, young people and their aspirations in the modern world, the British way of life. This very broad agenda has helped establish a pre-eminent position for the BBC among foreign broadcasters to Iran and many BBC Persian Service documentaries and features have been published in book form by local publishers.

  The relative liberalisation initiated by President Khatami in 1997 has enabled the Persian Service to interview a wider circle of experts and politicians from all the various groupings and factions and from the secular oppositionists who are still tolerated in Iran. This has further broadened the agenda and enriched BBC analysis. Effort has also been directed at obtaining interviews with industrialists, traders, commercial decision-makers, and with officials and members of the local and national assemblies. The BBC Persian Service also broadcasts English language-teaching programmes and provides the bilingual texts in co-operation with local publishers.

(b)   Audience

  During the Iranian revolutionary period 1978-79 the Iranian media were heavily censored by the Shah's government and this led to long strikes by journalists. The BBC had a unique role and captured a country-wide audience. As soon as the Persian Service's nightly broadcast Jam-e-Jahan Nama started at 19.45 p.m. local time, the streets emptied, gatherings stopped, and in Mosques prayers were interrupted and the Persian Service was put out on loud-speakers as the faithful were anxious to hear the latest developments. It was historically unparalleled. Since the Revolution, and despite the emergence of other competitors like the Voice of America, the Persian Service has maintained its lead.

  Popular perceptions of Britain and the BBC are, however, complicated and in some ways contradictory. The older generation closely identifies the BBC with what it calls the "imperial" policy objectives of the British government, which is widely perceived as having favoured and helped the Islamic revolution and as being close to the clerics. Yet at the same time, the conservative clergy clearly regard London and the BBC as favouring the reformist faction. Conspiracy theories abound, and Britain is regarded as endowed with near-magical powers to manipulate events and situations. The widespread perception—reinforced by constant local media references to the BBC as "London state radio"—is that the BBC is an arm of the British government's sinister and self-serving plots and policies. The younger generation has a more balanced view of the BBC and generally regards it as a source of objective and accurate information, good music and entertainment, as well as a window into a world of greater opportunity.

  Despite these contradictory perceptions, the reality is that the BBC is taken very seriously and is the reference point for a broad segment of the Iranian population. Ayatollah Khomeini regularly listened to the Persian Service as do the present Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, President Khatami and other leading personalities, decision-makers, MPs, women, young people, workers and farmers.

  For more than 25 years now, the BBC has been unable to carry out detailed research about its audience in Iran. However, figures from consumer research agencies in 1994 indicated that at least 13 per cent of the population were listening at least once a week to the BBC. Other research in 1999 showed that among Iranians travelling abroad (mostly businessmen and middle class people) the figure was 40 per cent. Earlier this year, a newspaper edited by President Khatami's brother reported that at least 16 per cent of the population listened to the BBC. This was at a time when freedom of the printed press caused newspaper circulation in Iran to shoot up to three million. It has since come down to two million following the closure of the most vocal in June this year. This makes it likely that foreign radio stations, including the BBC, will have increased their audiences in recent months. And one can only guess at the audience for a recent broadcast on the BBC, an exclusive interview and a concert given in Canada by the well-known Iranian pop icon, Googoosh, who reappeared after 21 years of silence. Anecdotal evidence suggests that virtually all Iranians, at home and abroad, heard it. Those abroad turned in unprecedented numbers to the BBC Persian Service Online site which scored more page impressions in August than the combined totals for BBC Radios two, three, four and five!

(c)   Delivery

  The BBC Persian Service reaches its audience in less than ideal quality on short wave from transmitter sites in Oman, Cyprus, the UK and Thailand. During the hours of darkness some parts of the country are within reach of medium wave transmissions from Oman and Cyprus. However, the main BBC Persian evening programmes are not available on medium wave in Tehran and listeners there have to make do with short wave. Given the political situation in the country there are no independent radio or TV stations and no-one, therefore, with whom to forge a rebroadcasting partnership of the kind entered into by other BBC language services in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union. Until political change brings media deregulation the Persian Service will continue to rely on delivery to Iran from outside. The Iranian authorities resort to jamming—not the systematic kind associated with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, but extensive use of extremely irritating co-channel interference when Iranian state transmissions are broadcast alongside or right on top of BBC frequencies. During the prolonged election period in February this year all major frequencies of the Persian Service were jammed and this trend has been continuing on an intermittent basis. A small and extremely effective medium wave transmitter hired by the BBC in Dushanbe (which covers parts of Central Asia and Afghanistan where Persian is spoken) is subjected periodically to the same treatment. Short and medium wave coverage of the entire region will be drastically improved when the Oman transmitter comes on stream in 2002. Some Persian transmissions are available in streamed audio on the Internet and they will soon be carried too on one of the satellites which beams international television services into Iran, the Middle East and Europe.

(d)   Competitors

  Several international radio stations compete with the BBC in Iran:

    —  Voice of America, started in 1980 following the seizure of American hostages in Tehran, has generally trailed the BBC in broadcasting news, analysis and entertainment. Its delivery is very strong thanks to an excellent Medium Wave relay station in Kuwait. VOA also broadcasts a weekly television discussion programme from its studios in Washington. The Iranian audience watches on its (illegally used but not illegally owned) satellite television equipment and it likes what it sees.

    —  Radio Liberty. The Prague-based radio station has long experience of broadcasting to former Eastern Block countries. Its Persian Service began in 1999 and has attracted many listeners. It has good short-wave delivery and is apparently gaining ascendancy over Voice of America.

    —  Radio France International, Radio Israel, Radio Moscow and a number of other radio stations in neighbouring countries also broadcast in Persian.

    —  For the last six months two new commercial radio and television stations have been broadcasting to Iran from America. These have proved very popular with the Iranian audience.


  The Iranian electronic media, controlled by the Conservatives, are not popular with the educated elite who seek out news and entertainment from the west using satellite television and, increasingly, the internet. Young Iranians, even those educated in Iran, have sufficient command of English to understand American and British stations, including CNN and BBC World television. Those who watch BBC World are clearly very appreciative, especially when anything is shown about Iran. World Service radio in English also has a dedicated following among the elite and diplomatic community although it suffers from the same delivery shortcomings as the BBC Persian Service.


  Despite initial misgivings by the authorities in Iran, Internet access is now growing rapidly. The Iranian parliament has its own online site, as do state radio and television (IRIB) and a host of newspapers and other publications. Journalists make extensive use of the Internet. BBC Online in English and Persian is proving popular with Iranians inside and outside the country. Using the funding settlement in July this year, the World Service will invest in its Persian online offer, providing a full multimedia service by 2003.


  BBC Monitoring provides a round-the-clock service of news and information derived from the monitoring of Iranian media. The primary aim is to provide accurate, timely and relevant reporting based on verbatim translations of selected material from Iranian radio and television channels, news agencies, a large number of national and provincial press publications and a host of Internet sources.

  BBC Monitoring is conscious of British political and economic interests in Iran, and through regular liaison with official customers, it endeavours to have up-to-date knowledge of the priority issues at any given time. The material produced by BBC Monitoring is used widely by many Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff dealing with the Middle East in general and Iran in particular. One of the services offered to the FCO is the Newsfile, a stream of high priority news stories on major political, social and economic developments. Some recent Iranian stories credited to the Newsfile were: Khatami's victory in the presidential elections of May 1997; the resignation and subsequent imprisonment of former Interior Minister Abdollah Nuri: the final outcome of the crucial elections in February this year for the Sixth term of the Majilis; and the recent move by the Judiciary to ban over 20 newspapers and journals.

  BBC Monitoring also provides a service to Members of Parliament, House of Commons researchers and library staff. Iranian material can be accessed either through the World Media Monitor (WMM) directly or via the Parliamentary Data Video Network (PDVN). The same procedure and method of access apply to the House of Lords. FCO staff in London or Tehran have access to the WMM or can receive material via an e-mail profile service.

  BBC Monitoring has recently been endeavouring to utilise the expertise of its staff and its wide-ranging access to foreign media to enhance and develop its value-added products. Since September 1999, the Persian team in Caversham has been producing monthly analyses of major domestic and international events in Iran and of their coverage in the country's media. There are also special packages on specific topics such as the comprehensive election guide to the crucial Majlis elections in February this year. This multimedia package provided a guide to the electoral procedure, laws and regulations, and the platforms of the contenders and their parties and factions.

  In response to the growing British interest in information on the ongoing debates between the key political factions and groups; BBC Monitoring has been covering all major Tehran daily newspapers, as well as regional dailies and weeklies from every part of Iran. BBC Monitoring is one of the main sources of information for BBC World Service's news programming.

  The FCO is a stakeholder in BBC Monitoring and contributes approximately a third of its annual funding. The other stakeholders are the Ministry of Defence, the Cabinet Office and the BBC itself.


  The reformists in Iran clearly have the backing of a large majority in population. But that by no means implies that it is all plain sailing and that the battle is won. In fact, since the general elections of February 2000 (convincingly won by the reformists), hard-line conservatives have reasserted their grip on all the levers of real power which they command, and have struck back in every way possible. At times, this has made it seem as though, which the tide of history and demographics may be deemed to be with the reformist, change may be very slow coming, and may even grind to a halt or be reversed. A swift, clear-cut victory for either side is not in sight.

  For the BBC, this means being caught in the middle of an ongoing struggle, because the media in general, and the foreign media in particular, are very much part of the battlefield. When the Leader gave the green light this spring for the summary closure of large numbers of reformist newspapers by the right-wing judiciary, it was because they were acting as "forward bases" for Iran's foreign foes and for the outside radio stations, which are frequently accused by right-wingers of fomenting dissidence and striving to undermine the clerical regime.

  On the ground, however, officials involved in the reestablishment of the BBC bureau in Tehran have been extremely co-operative and helpful and ordinary people are usually positive in their attitudes.

  In this climate, the BBC clearly has an important role to play in keeping up a flow of demonstrably objective news and analysis of the evolving situation. It is also important that the BBC should use its presence in Iran to put across to the outside world a full and balanced picture of the country, in all its varied aspects, and not just the political struggle.

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Prepared 13 February 2001