I have been reading and listening to the anti-Ahmadinejad protests that have been going on in Iran for the past two weeks, and I had many things to say about it, but I wouldn’t want to write any of that now. The BBC in particular is saying what I would have said about what is happening with the Basij fascists and the anti-establishment protesters.
So what follows is actually an analysis of the BBC’s coverage. The BBC is known as one of the most reputable news agencies in the world. Yet it can be demonstrated that the BBC does not apply same amount of journalistic integrity to riots in countries that pass the liberal democracy test.
Consider two instances of rioting. One, an anti-government protest in a nation belonging to the European Union, NATO, and the OECD. The other, an anti-government protest in a nation labeled by the President of the Untied States as an “axis of evil”.
Consider two specific articles. One was written during insurrected Greece in December and January of this year, Riots Push Greece to the Edge. The other was written today about protest activity in corrupted Iran, Police Break Up New Tehran Rally.
Both articles are not taken out of context, and both adequately describe the media mood toward both situations. The mood of the BBC, by the way, is the same that can be found in any other Western media outlet, CNN, the Economist, MSNBC, etc.
Western media can be shown to support the burning of police cars, the bombing of fascist headquarters, and will also take sides in election fraud accusations. But they only support this activity when the situation is happening in an “axis of evil” country, like Iran. Otherwise Western media take the side of “history” in the Fukuyaman sense. I will use specific examples.
First consider this well-researched examination of 800 English and Afrikaans print articles during the Apartheid era in South Africa a good case in point. Researchers Edward Bird and Zureida Garda found that the South African media was, as we would expect, helping the government suppress the black liberation movement using language that is very familiar today. The same kind of language is used by Western media to put down anti-government activity originating in the West.
Bird and Garda found that whites were represented in the media as “victims” and blacks were reduced to “unidentifiable” masses. For example, in 1976 blacks in the Soweto uprising/massacre were represented as “mobs” who were “bent on anarchy, looting and arson.” Whites were there to keep the peace (by murdering blacks.) Bird and Garda say this ideology produced a psychosis motivated and encouraged by discourse in the South African media.
The representation of the threatening mob fed into the apartheid motivated discourse of a “Swart gevaar” where huge numbers of black people who could not be contained threatened the social, physical, and ideological space of white South Africans.
The use of language such as “tsotsis” and “drunken rioters” added to the criminal image established… The protest actions thus moved into the sphere of the criminal. Whilst the police’s actions in firing live ammunition at unarmed students (‘Automatics used on rioting mobs’ The Star 17/6/1976), and their attempt to prevent wounded students being treated at Baragwanath (‘…armed police refusing to admit a 14 year-old school boy who had been shot three times’ Rand Daily Mail 18/6/1976) was not seen as being negative or unacceptable. The police were instead represented as keepers of law and order.
The role of the police perpetuated the “war psychosis,” as they called it, where armed police were needed to hold the blacks at bay. In the years after 1976, the role of the media was the same, but the tactics of the media became more “sophisticated” as time went on.
Let’s bring ourselves up to date.
2009 began as Greece suffered a sophisticated riot psychosis. The BBC and other Western media referred to Greek demonstrators as “self-styled anarchists” (NYTimes and FOX, but many more), “half-educated to functionally literate, spoiled, aggressive” (The Economist), “mobs of youth” (everyone), “a small group of hardcore anarchists” (Reuters), and even “extremists who take refuge in acts of extreme violence” (Associated Press). These words were meant to establish the criminal image of the demonstrators, the factory occupiers, and motivate their repression by police.
The police were almost immediately forgiven by the media after the initial murdering of the young Athenian boy, which started the riots. The real media demons were the anarchists, not the police, and anybody who participated in demonstrating was equivocated with the anarchist movement. Police were portrayed as keepers of law and order, as in South Africa. Yet demonstrators all along viewed the police as the “straw which broke the camel’s back” sparking the demonstrations.
The article, Riots Push Greece to the Edge, starts like this:
“Pulsating punk rock was stoking up the black-clad army of students outside the University of Athens…”
Now, this is the BBC, one of the most “reputable” news agencies in the West. I am not going to innumerate the many awards it has received for excellence in reporting over the years. But notice that we are never told what kind of music the Iranian demonstrators are listening to. The situation in Greece is treated as a joke, as a punk show festival. But even a police helicopter flying over Tehran is treated as the most menacing sight you could imagine.
The BBC focuses, for example, on class dynamics in the European Union country riots. The BBC described the Greek demonstrations as attracting only unemployed university graduates. “We know the protesters are not workers,” Prime Minister Karamanlis was reported to have said, “because the workers are at work.”
The Czech news media used the same tactics during the Prague Spring in 1968, in an attempt to pit lower class workers against snobby rich college students. Ultimately that tactic was successful in Prague, as it was elsewhere. This is how the BBC concealed this stereotype:
At present, the demonstrations across Greece are mainly attracting students, high-school pupils, veteran leftist campaigners and members of the so called 700-euro generation – disenchanted graduates who are unable to break through the ceiling of this nation’s minimum wage.
The working and middle classes are staying away, perhaps because of the petrol bombs and tear gas.
But who are the working and middle classes, and how does the BBC know who they are? All classes were in the street. You might have heard: people all over Greece occupied workplaces and universities in dozens of cities and islands. This was a generalized riot, an occupation movement. The petty bourgeoisie, the upwardly mobile classes, were busy tending to their shops. The BBC’s description is wrong, and blatantly classist.
According to the BCC, “responsible” politicians, are ones who were
condemning the violence and exerting tight discipline over their protest rallies.
Catch that in the BBC’s mouth. Today Iranian authorities are exerting tight discipline over protest rallies. Yet the BBC would shoot itself in the foot to call Ahmadinejad, the police, or the Basij “responsible.”
In Iran protests are broken up with tear gas, too, and Basij militia soldiers beat people down with clubs and stand in menacing rows on street corners. Greece also had militiamen operating in the open against demonstrators, stabbing people, shooting at them, and kidnapping immigrants. They were called the Golden Dawn. This militia hardly got any attention from the press.
For its coverage of Iran the BBC presents itself as a champion of liberal democracy by condemning all force against the right to freedom of speech. I have not seen the BBC talk about a riotous situation so favorably as they do in articles about insurrecting Iran, such as in Police Break Up New Tehran Rally.
Eyewitnesses said hundreds of riot police were used to drive the protesters from the square.
On Monday afternoon, a police helicopter could be seen circling above the centre of Tehran.
Notice that the eyewitnesses are trusted, not played down. The article doesn’t mention what the eyewitnesses were wearing, what they smelled like, what kind of music they listened to, or even, whether they were protesters. Riot police are used to drive away, (which seems accurate enough in Greece, too). But typically the media will say something like, riot police cleared the area of protesters after warning them to stay clear of the square (as in Athens with Stygmata Square, too) but then the protesters started to use the barricades as WEAPONS! (So the police were justified…)
In Iran, the BBC talks to protesters seriously. Iranian protesters are victims, and the police are unidentifiable masses, just the reverse of the South African Apartheid press. The masses of Iranian people, while they are burning things in the street, are not allegedly “bent on anarchy…” In Greece the BBC talks to protesters to poke fun at them, and talks to politicians to get the real perspective on the situation in Greece. In fact, the very fact that many of the protesters in Greece called themselves anarchists piqued the curiosity of the press, which began referring to them as “self-styled anarchists,” as if this was somehow like calling yourself a “self-styled nigger” in South Africa.
The BBC article about Iran continues,
Some Basij militiamen, who are being used as street-level enforcers, stood in groups armed with clubs while others rode around on motorbikes.
BBC Persian TV received an e-mail from one person saying: “There are lots of people but they are scattered, and lots of police guards. They are firing bullets in the air and using tear gas against the crowds.”
In side streets, young people set fire to rubbish skips in what they said was a protest but also an attempt to combat the tear gas.
Some claimed not to be scared by the large show of force and threats from the Revolutionary Guards.
Is the BBC defending that burning trash heap because it wards away tear gas? I have never seen the BBC write about a burning blockade so favorably, except here.
This situation seems so much more dire because of the way the BBC is writing about this. Scenes from Iran look just like Moldova last month, like Strasbourg’s NATO summit in April, like Greece this past January, and Thailand during the ASEAN Summit, and to a much lesser extent like the G20 in London. Yet the only difference is the writing style.
The style of communication the BBC is using now is a familiar type of psychosis. It’s the same style reminiscent of descriptions of Nazi tyranny. It gives you the feeling you’re being closed in on from every side by armed stormtroopers. It’s a descriptively anti-fascist style of writing.
Instead of producing a “war psychosis,” where news consumers are lead to believe police are the keepers are law and order who are needed to keep the anti-government protesters at bay, the BBC is producing an anti-fascist psychosis where just the opposite is true. The mood of the spectacle is the only difference.