Memorandum submitted by BBC World Service
1. THE BBC IN
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.
2. THE BBC PERSIAN
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.
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
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
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 perceptionreinforced 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
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!
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 jammingnot 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.
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.
3. THE BBC IN
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.
5. BBC MONITORING
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
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.