Saturday 9 March 2019

John Simpson and the Persians

Not a fan of John Simpson (feeling doubtless mutual)

The 'mad mullahs' in Iran are certainly mad if they thing the BBC is out to get them. 

But as they (the 'mullahs') probably are, they (also the 'mullahs') apparently do.

So, for those interested in such things, here's a transcript of John Simpson's Today talk this morning.

(Watch out for the bit when the famously impartial BBC's World Affairs Editor says BBC Persian's news reports are "scrupulously fair". He, of course, is completely sure of that, being completely free from bias himself.) 

Even though it's effectively banned in Iran and constantly under attack and the authorities do whatever they can to prevent the signal getting through, BBC Persian still has a weekly audience of 12 million people in Iran - something like one in five of the adult population. Its news reports are scrupulously fair, which is why so many people there watch them. But the service also broadcasts plenty of entertainment - Top Gear, for instance, gets a big viewership. 

Since the authorities in Iran can't stop people watching BBC Persian they've turned to other ways of undermining it. More than 100 current members of BBC Persian staff are affected by what the BBC's lawyers call "a concentrated campaign of persecution". Their families in Iran are randomly picked up and interrogated. their passports have been confiscated, their assets frozen. When family members die there's no question of BBC staff being able to go back for the funeral. The danger of being arrested is far too high. 

Rana Rahimpour
One of the main on-air figures on BBC Persian, Rana Rahimpour. has spoken out about the problem:
Rana RahimpourThis nightmare is always with us. Every time a parent dies we get together in London and hold a service in memory of our colleague's loved one in Iran. We do this to offer support to a friend facing painful loss simply because it's too dangerous for him to go home and mourn with those gathered around the grave.
Iran regularly accuses the BBC of being part of a more general British government plot to undermine the Islamic Republic and bring about regime change in Iran. So far it hasn't publicly responded to the press conference held about the problem last weekm but Iranian state television has since broadcast a claim that BBC Persian employees have written to President Trump asking him the strengthen the American economic sanctions against Iran - an accusation that does't have any basis in fact. 

The BBC and Iran go back a long way. BBC Persian Radio started out in 1940. It was a wartime service. It was intended to broadcast the British view of the war at a time when the then-Shah had strong sympathies with Hitler and the Nazis. The Shah eventually resigned in favour of his son, Mohammad Reza Shah, but people have long memories in Iran and when I first started reporting there in 1978 during the revolution that eventually brought down Reza Shah he refused to let me interview him or even meet him because he told the then-British ambassador the BBC was all part of the plot against him. Yet the Islamic revolutionaries who overthrew him promptly took the same line. The BBC was their enemy too. 

Nowadays we know that all sorts of senior figures in the Iranian government watch and listen to the BBC, but the basic suspicion still lingers. No use explaining that the BBC is independent of British government control. Iran, you see, has a much-repeated proverb, even today: If you trip over a stone in the street be sure an Englishman left it there. 

Not a fan of John Simpson (feeling possibly less mutual)
BBC Persian started television broadcasts in January 2009, shortly before the disputed general election in June that year which ended in violent clashes in the streets and threatened the very existence of the Islamic state government. The authorities managed to put down the rioting only by using the utmost force. In their minds the two things - the BBC's television broadcasts and anti-government riots - were inextricably linked.

Nothing though seems to stop ordinary Iranians watching and listening to the BBC. Or wanting to work for it. At the press conference called to draw attention to the persecution of BBC Persian journalists someone asked about recruitment to the service. "It's higher than ever" was the response. 

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