Zahra, an Iranian woman studying at an English university, is in a state of terror. Her husband, an activist in the cause of the defeated Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, was arrested a fortnight ago, and has not been seen since. Zahra, whose eyes are lined in green, the colour of the country’s reformist opposition, told the BBC: “Why should he be in jail? What was wrong with what we did in Tehran? It was the basic right of all Iranians to take part in the election.” She went on: “They don’t let my husband call me . . . this is torture.”
It is torture for Zahra because she has a good idea of what is happening to her husband. The Iranian state media have been broadcasting a series of “confessions” by demonstrators against the alleged rigging of the presidential vote in favour of the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They all tend to say the same thing: “I admit that I demonstrated under the influence of the BBC, the Voice of America and other foreign media.”
Their identities are not discernible, because their faces have been obscured. The reason for this was made horribly clear by remarks in The Guardian from a shopkeeper friend of an 18-year-old who had been “questioned” by the Iranian security services: “You could tell straight away he had just been released. His face was bruised all over. His teeth were broken and he could hardly open his eyes . . . [Later] the doctor told me that he had suffered rupture of the rectum.”
The shopkeeper quoted his 18-year-old friend to the effect that he had not “confessed” despite several days of beating while being hung from a ceiling with his hands and feet tied together. At that point two men tore his clothes off while a third “did it” – that is, inflicted the assault that ruptured his rectum. He was raped several times in this way, in front of four other detainees, but continued to refuse to sign a confession along the lines suggested by his interrogators.
So when we hear Ayatollah Jannati, chief of the Guardian Council, say of arrested Iranian employees of the British embassy in Tehran, “Naturally they will be put on trial, they have made confessions,” we should be only too aware of what will have been happening to some of Her Majesty’s servants.
Few people, men or women, are able to withstand such interrogations, especially if they have family members vulnerable to the threat of arrest. Even such a strong personality as the Canadian-Iranian journalist and film-maker Maziar Bahari – who was brave enough to work in Iraq after the invasion of 2003, and also to make films about an HIV-infected man’s search for love in theocratic Iran – has now made a confession. After nine days’ detention, Bahari emerged to describe western journalists in Iran as “spies”. Immediately before he disappeared, Bahari had given Britain’s Channel 4 News footage of members of Iran’s volunteer paramilitary force, the basiji, opening fire on a crowd of protesters.
Press TV, the Iranian English-language service which broadcasts internationally from London, did not manage to show this film of the basiji in action. However, it did report Bahari’s confession without a scintilla of scepticism, thus: “Bahari explained the nature of some of his activities in Iran over the past years and the role that the western media had played in the events which unfolded . . . Bahari specifically highlighted the role of the BBC, CNN [and] Euronews.” This account could almost have been designed as a self-advertisement for Press TV; it was launched two years ago by the Iranian government to counter what Ahmadinejad described on its first day of broadcasting as “a media global war” against Iran.
In recent weeks it has been self-promoting even more directly in the UK: London buses have been covered with advertisements for Press TV under the slogan “24/7. News. Truth.” And whose face can we see accompanying these ads for the Iranian government’s counter to the wicked western media? Why, it is none other than Andrew Gilligan. You know, the journalist whose dodgy Radio 4 Today programme unattributed report of the views of the late Dr David Kelly (the source Gilligan betrayed via e-mail to members of the foreign affairs select committee) ultimately led to the resignation of the BBC’s chairman and director-general.
Gilligan has recently been hired as “London editor” of The Daily Telegraph, but he has for some time been a presenter of a discussion show on Press TV. He is one of a small number of British journalists who are being paid by the Iranian state to adorn the airwaves. Another is Lauren Booth, half-sister of Cherie Blair, who has been described as a “human rights activist”. Still another is Yvonne Ridley, who seemed to have become afflicted with Stockholm syndrome following her capture by the Taliban in Afghanistan while a reporter for the Sunday Express, and whose subsequent conversion to Islam was facilitated by Abu Hamza, the hook-handed London-based preacher now serving a seven-year jail sentence for inciting murder and race hate. Ridley, who is by all accounts a kindly soul, has referred to Hamza as “very sweet”.
Press TV’s most well-known presenter – sorry, Mr Gilligan – is George Galloway, who has a show called The Real Deal. On it, the Respect MP has defended the conduct of the Iranian presidential elections – in which two provinces apparently managed a voter turnout of more than 100% – contrasting it with the US, where, he said, George W Bush had “actually stolen” the American presidency. Galloway, who has a tendresse for any “antiZionist” leader – how could we forget his face-to-face eulogising of the late Saddam Hussein? – said last week that “Press TV is Iranian-owned, but that doesn’t influence my opinion”.
I’m sure that’s true: Press TV devotes an extraordinary proportion of its output to attacks on “Zionism”, as Martin Bright, the former New Statesman political editor, pointed out in his forensic demolition last Wednesday of Press TV’s spokesman on BBC2’s Newsnight.
It was only a pity that time prevented Bright from detailing how Press TV’s website commissioned an article by a British Holocaust denier called Nicholas Kollerstrom. Kollerstrom insists that no Jews were gassed at Auschwitz, but instead happily played water polo together in the camp’s “elegant swimming pool”. This is, of course, entirely consistent with the views of Ahmadinejad.
I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that Gilligan and co sympathise with the Iranian president’s enthusiasm for Holocaust denial. The London “stars” of Press TV would presumably argue that they are just journalists plying their trade to the best of their ability, selling their talents to anyone who is prepared to bid for them. Indeed, several said last week that they will continue with their shows, because they were “not subject to any political interference” from the Iranian authorities.
How delightful for them; but it should also occur to Gilligan, Ridley and Booth that they are being paid to lend credibility to the propaganda arm of a regime that subjects its own journalists to the most brutal “political interference” – Bahari is one of 24 local reporters or bloggers who have recently been seized by the Iranian authorities – and which is now inciting violence against British reporters in Tehran, by declaring that they are the cause of riots and bloodshed.
Above all, it must have occurred to the highly intelligent Gilligan that any Iranian journalist who took on the Tehran government in the way he challenged the Blair administration while working for the BBC would experience not career advancement, but unimaginable terror.