As I wait in Dubai for my Iranian visa application to be processed, I’ve been watching the events portrayed in the international media of Iran’s elections and subsequent demostrations with a certain amount of frustration.
I have deeper ties than most to the country. Not only did I spent several weeks travelling in Iran last year, but I did so with a girl who spent the first twenty-four years of her life growing up in Tehran, and to whom I’m now engaged.
Having access to her very personal perspective on current events and the historical context that created them, as well as my own first-hand experience of the views and lifestyles of a wide section of Iranian society – from the rural poor to the urban intelligensia to the ethnic minorities – I have witnessed, germinating in front of my very eyes, the very epitomy of the Western propaganda machine itself.
It is a testament to the terrible power of the media that, without ever publishing an openly fallacious statement or doctored image, the coverage of Iran’s elections has motivated millions of outsiders, who until a fortnight ago were entirely disinterested in the complexities of Iranian internal affairs, to lend their support to a single facet of a fractured society – the facet which, in present times, offers the most in terms of opportunity for Western governments to get what they’ve long desired from Iran. How?
By focusing entirely on those reformists who are sufficiently motivated to take to the streets against the election results, the digital town-criers to whom we hasten for news on the big, bad world out there have painted Iran as “a nation in chaos”. In this one-dimensional behemoth characterized by corruption and violence, the Iranian people are battling bravely against a power-hungry religious dictatorship that pulls the strings of peasants and presidents alike.
What none of the reports mention is that a win for conservative Ahmadinejad was actually quite likely. Of course, it wouldn’t look that way if you asked passers-by in Tehran. The capital is the natural home of the educated, middle-class liberal. But Iran is more than just Tehran. The conservative population – those who elected Ahmadinejad in the first place and who could quite realistically have voted him in for a second term – is enormous. But these people are also the ones without access to mobile phones, internet connections, and, of course, Twitter. Does this mean their opinions are worthless?
It is outstandingly obvious from a brief glance at the #IranElection Twitter channel that practically all of the information coming out of this online shouting match is from pro-reformist users. Those unaware of the true nature of Iranian society could be easily forgiven for being overwhelmed and thinking they were listening to a country entirely at odds with its rulers.
The last ten days have highlighted the fundamental flaw of the system – not just Twitter but new media in general: Rather than facilitating the free distribution of objective information, it has facilitated the free distribution of the views and experiences of a minority demographic who have access to it. If you’re reading this, you’re probably part of that demographic yourself.
Why do news editors and faraway observers alike assume that Twitter represents the voice of Iran? Are we psychologically equipped to deal with globally-sized paradigms? Has the light-speed progress of the Information Age left good old evolution trailing in its wake?
Commentators such as the BBC have wasted no time in embroidering the canvas that they’ve been helping to build over the last few decades. An Australian girl who I met here in Dubai was surprised to hear my stories from the country. She’s always assumed it was just “some twisted place that was making nuclear weapons”. This was someone who’d never needed or wanted to take any particular interest in Iran, but had grown up around the ‘background noise’ that we’re all exposed to every time we absent-mindedly put on the six-o’clock news or glance at a headline as we walk past the newsagent. It wasn’t an unusual comment to hear. Is that ‘background noise’ accidental, or the result of years of nurturing?
The BBC clearly has an agenda. Its articles are carefully seeded – count how many times we are reminded that the Assembly Of Experts can “in theory remove [the Supreme Leader] if he is deemed incapable of fulfilling his duties” – a minor theoretical postulation which, repeated often enough, is designed to lead us to believe that there is a real chance that the current regime is about to topple.
And notice that Ahmadinejad himself is credited with being “a founding member of the student union that took over the US embassy in Tehran in 1979” – a statement carefully designed to vaguely link the man with a famous hostage-taking incident, despite the fact that a critical reading of the sentence would reach no such conclusion. This, in the BBC’s opinion, is important enough to form the thrust of the first of four short paragraphs describing Ahmadinejad’s role in Iranian politics in their ‘who’s who‘ primer on the BBC News website.
Why is it in the BBC’s interest to espouse the ‘selective truth’ like this – an act which is, in my opinion, just as subvertive as outright lying? It would be naive to forget that intelligence agencies and media have long been in each others’ pockets. The BBC itself broadcast the ‘go’ signal for Operation Ajax, in which the MI6 and CIA orchestrated the overthrown of Iran’s newly-elected prime minister in 1953.
Those with such an agenda must be cackling in glee at the Twitter frenzy – it’s doing their job for them, and it’s doing it incredibly well. One of my favourite travel blogs – from Canada – has seen fit to publish two articles in recent days urging its readers to support the activists. The premises are based solely on limited secondary sources. Neither author has ever visited Iran. How legitimate can such opinions possibly be, when they are based on highly convincing yet highly biased reporting?
What explains the absence of self-criticism of the achievements of propaganda in today’s media, and the perverse way in which media channels report on stories concerning themselves in the third person and without comment, as if doing so is somehow an instrinsic act of redemption? “A spokesman said foreign media were “mouthpieces” of enemy governments seeking Iran’s disintegration”, I read on the BBC website this morning. Come on. This is old news.
How many people are there with a vague, disinterested misconception of the “twisted place” called Iran – one for which they aren’t at all to blame? If there’s one thing I learnt in two years of travel, it was that everything I’d heard about other countries was wrong. It’s certainly not just Iran that’s suffered this blackened image, either. That’s what I mean by the terrible power of the media. And it’s against this backdrop that the current events have been played out.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not taking a stand against the protests, or against the principle of a fair and just election. But it’s important not to confuse the complaints of the few with the wishes of the many. There may well have been hundreds of thousands of people on the streets in Tehran a week ago, and there may well have been discrepancies in the ballot – it wouldn’t be the first time or the first country in which it’s happened.
But this is a country of nearly 80 million people. The protests of a few thousand of them are being used, for whatever reason, to represent all of them. And, if we’re true believers in democracy, they all have an equal right to choose their leader – whether or not their circumstances have afforded them a digital voice. In the absence of proof of election-rigging and in the complete dearth of objective reporting, the best we all can do is keep our mouths shut and withhold judgement until the evidence is in.
When does foreign support become foreign meddling? How much of our opinions is truly our own? Can we trust the media to portray global events objectively? Can we ever truly understand the intricacies of any of the world’s problems just by reading about them?
Can we admit that sometimes we just don’t know?