Iran and the reputation of the BBC


By Bob Duncan
At the beginning of the 1980s, I met the lovely girl who would later become my wife. She was a Persian student who had become trapped in Scotland by the Iranian revolution. 

Susan’s family were all back in Iran and she, with no immediate prospect of being able to return home, was completely cut off from them.  In those days they shot dissident students as they arrived at Tehran airport.

This was when I first came into regular contact with the BBC World Service.  We both listened to the English language news service nightly, trying to get a clear view of events in Iran as they unfolded.  News was difficult to come by as foreign journalists were extremely unwelcome.

The Iranian state broadcaster carried nothing but propaganda.  During those years, the BBC was a lifeline for Susan and the many other Persian exiles we knew back then.  We later heard that the Farsi language version of the World Service was equally important to those inside Iran.  The first act of the Islamic revolutionaries was to take over the radio and television stations and so control their output.

This is standard practice in all revolutions and military coups.  The BBC then became the main source of news for huge numbers of ordinary Iranians, despite the severe punishments awaiting those who were caught tuning in.

Since then, I have met people from a wide range of troubled countries.  Many of them had similar tales of praise for the BBC World Service as their main source of unbiased news coverage, particularly concerning their own country. 

Despite recent cuts in the World Service provision, the BBC has, to this day, an unparalleled reputation as a fearless and impartial international news broadcaster and is relied upon by millions of people worldwide.

Naturally, both the BBC and the people of the UK are justifiably proud of this reputation.

However, the one thing I did not expect, when listening to those 80’s radio broadcasts with Susan, was that I would find myself in the same position thirty years later.  My state broadcaster, along with the rest of the main stream media in Scotland and throughout the UK, is so heavily partisan in favour of unionism that large sections of the news are effectively state propaganda.

Scotland and the wider UK are in a state of political and constitutional upheaval, due to the rise of the SNP and the independence movement, and particularly due to the imminence of the referendum. It is hardly armed revolution, but the parallels with Iran are clear.

The most obvious of these is that I now find myself increasingly reliant on foreign news broadcasters, such as Al-Jazeera and Russia Today, as I search for a full and impartial report of what is happening in my own country. And I am not alone in doing this.

It is particularly damning in the case of the BBC.  At a UK level we are subjected to relentless sycophancy on matters of monarchy and an oppressively metrocentric view of the world.  The beeb is being used as a weapon by a UK government which is desperate to keep the union together at any cost. The independence movement is subject to a war of attrition and, as in all wars, the first victim has been the truth.

BBC Scotland, however, is guilty of a degree of bias which is simultaneously far deeper and endemic but also more subtle than the “national” BBC. We are subjected to regular doping of interview panels and audiences with British Nats, negative spinning of news to the advantage of the unionists and the effective censorship of stories which could reflect well on the SNP or independence movement.

There is a level of partiality here, and a growing realisation of its extent, which is beginning to gnaw away at that enviable BBC reputation which was built up by the World Service over so many years.

And that, I believe, is the key.

A concerted popular campaign to embarrass BBC Scotland could well help to reduce, if not remove, this bias. It will need to undermine the reputation of the service, not only in Scotland, but throughout the world, for it is their international reputation for impartiality which the BBC holds so dear.

And it is that very worldwide prestige which will be at risk if Scots begin to use their international connections to reveal the dreadful bias of the institution at home.

The complaints we have made thus far may already be having an effect. Recently there has been an apparent (slight) increase in positive stories and even the occasional balanced panel.

The last-minute insertion of Nicol Sturgeon, replaced by Alex Neil after the legionnaires’ outbreak, into a shockingly imbalanced Question Time panel for Inverness, would seem to have been a response to pressure from Cybernats and the SNP.  The substitution of Green MSP Partick Harvie for the usual LibDem on the recent Big Debate may have been a cynical attempt to expose divisions in the indie camp, but the balance showed how things could and should be.

It seems we may also see the end of the constant use of pejorative language by BBC correspondents and presenters, including the use of separation, divorce and break-up and their ilk. So far so good.

This rebalancing, if that is what it is, is very tentative and quite subtle but it might represent real progress. We should keep up the pressure, at home and abroad, and see if the BBC can be pushed back closer towards impartiality, as we begin the independence debate proper.  It is just possible that all is not yet lost at Pacific Quay.

Meanwhile, Iranians are still imprisoned for listening to foreign news, but Susan can now speak with her family on Skype, keep up to date on Facebook, and share family photographs in emails.  Iran may be largely unchanged, but this is no longer the 1980s.

This is 2012 and we are winning the argument online and in the new media.