Iran’s nuclear power: Failing to fuel smart reporting


News coverage about the recent revelation of another nuclear processing plant in Iran highlights the strange relationship between the press and politics. Watching and listening to the rhetoric in the mass media, created by and journalists in action, it’s hard not to feel somehow let down once more by the results of the news production.

The constantly streaming advert on BBC World News, announcing that it is asking the tough questions and finding the answers, rings somewhat hollow. It is all very well to ask tough questions and find the answers. There is a caveat on this issue, however. What matters is not the quantity, but the quality of those questions and answers. To whom are you asking those “tough” questions? And where are you getting answers from?
A number of elements, including repetition of past “failures” in mass media news reporting, are present in this story. To qualify what I mean by “failures” lies in the basic theoretical underpinning of what function mass media and journalism should perform in society: to serve the public interest rather than any political interest. Although at times political and public interests overlap, there have been enough occasions to assume that this is not always the case.

Understanding national interest

In a number of recent conversations, both in a personal and professional setting, discussions have arisen concerning the issue of national interest. The context, more often than not, revolves around the discussion of changes in the United State’s national interests as the result of the Bush administration exiting and the Obama administration entering the White House.

Many assume that there shall “naturally” be a new set of national interests as a result of this transition of power. I do not make this assumption; there are a number of national interests and foreign policies that will endure. Some specific national interests and foreign policy issues are going to transcend individual administrations, regardless of whether they are Republican or Democrat. Iran is certainly one of those cases. The US has taken a more or less consistent approach to the Iranian political regime over the last three decades.

Establishing historical episodes

One could go back some ways looking at interference in the domestic and economic affairs in Persia, which in many ways cleared the way for the Islamists to come to power in the first instance. There has been a long history of tensions between the US and Iran, the latter usually being on the receiving end of military strikes and propaganda when they occur. One of the main problems being for the Iranian regime is its lack of credibility in the eyes of the international press.

One of the moments that caught the attention of the international press happened 3 July, 1988, when Iranian Air Flight 655 was shot down by the US Navy’s USS Vincennes. Some 290 passengers and crew were killed. What is more, the civilian airliner was shot down in Iranian air space. It was not until 1996 that the US and Iran reached agreement and settled all disputes and claims surrounding the case.

Another moment worth imageexamining occurred much more recently. In January, 2008, a number of alleged “Iranian gunboats” harassed several US warships making their way through the Strait of Hormuz. The Pentagon alleged that these boats approached “aggressively” and threatened the US ships. However, when looking at the video clip of the incident, one thing is striking. The “gunboats” lacked guns. They were speedboats, keeping some distance from the warships. The voiceover on the clip was later admitted to having been added later as a means to “clarify” what was “actually” happening. In other words, the clip was “doctored” in order to give the intended perception of the event.

The fog that comes before war

Information can be used to build a pretext for justifying the use of military force; this is not an unknown phenomenon. The case that springs to many minds when this is mentioned is Iraq prior to the March, 2003, invasion. A pair of nonprofit journalism groups teamed to count how many false or misleading statements were made by President Bush and other top officials between the September, 2001, attacks on the US and the March, 2003, invasion of Iraq. The study concluded that 935 such statements were made during this period.

...Given recent history of the exploitation of the mass media to achieve political objectives there is a sense of wonder if history shall repeat itself ...

The Bush administration claimed to have irrefutable evidence of Iraq’s guilt. Iraq was said to have weapons of mass destruction and ties to terrorist organisations. Flash forward less than a decade and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is referring to Iran and the current situation as being a “serial deception of many years.” There are claims of having “independent” evidence, without actually naming the sources. On the surface, there seems to be a number of similarities between the period of political rhetoric prior to starting a war in Iraq and the current case being constructed against Iran. Given recent history of the exploitation of the mass media to achieve political objectives there is a sense of wonder if history shall repeat itself. Or shall journalists develop an approach that does not simply retell those official news bites without any analysis or any challenge?

Satellite photos and other shocking revelations

Iran claims that it notified the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of the disputed facility in sufficient time and according to the protocols
relating to the notification period required for such declarations. The Brown, Obama and Sarkozy trio state that Iran “came clean” because it knew its secret was discovered. In a strange turn of events, a Washington DC thinktank was the one to release a satellite photo of this nuclear facility; the image had very good resolution. This image prompts a number of questions, which for the most part seem to have been ignored in the mass media. How did a Washington DC thinktank get such high-quality satellite images of this nuclear facility at this particular crucial moment?

The conspiracy of the international bureaucrats

Once more parallel can be drawn alongside the Iraq case. imageWhen there was not the “right” information emerging from the international weapons inspectors in Iraq, the US government complained about the professionalism of those inspectors and accused them of withholding vital information. In spite of all the efforts of the US to try and find the WMDs, it was not able to do so.

The situation seems to be coming full circle once more. The International Atomic Energy Agency says that there is no concrete evidence of a nuclear weapons programme in Iran although there have been some complaints concerning co-operation with the Iranian officials. This contrasts vividly with the political rhetoric of French President Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Brown and US President Obama who insist Iran has military ambitions. It may in fact do, but this trio does not supply any substantial evidence to back up the allegation. The US, among others, is alleging that the IAEA chief, Mohammed ElBaradei is withholding crucial information on the issue from the Iran report.

Assumption of guilt and narrowing the options

Just a little over one year ago the Pentagon was expressing doubt over Israeli intelligence reports on the Iranian nuclear programme. At this stage there was the statement that a military attack on Iran would be problematic, mostly due to not knowing where all bases are located. However, within six months matters began to change. An American thinktank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, stated that Iran would be capable of producing a nuclear bomb by the end of 2010.

Thus there seems to be a time frame that is in the process of being established. Although there is some attention given to some kind of diplomatic approach, plus the threat of sanctions, the prospect of military action has not been excluded. In this manner it seems that military action is not being considered as a last resort, especially when the specific tactics and possible results are already being openly discussed.

Summing it up

The evidence shown in satellite images and intercepts of Iraqi communications were used by the Bush administration to create the perception of a just war against Iraq. One of the flaws in the current coverage of Iran is the basic assumptions. This skews the questions that are being asked. For instance, there has been little in the way of Western media coverage or questioning whether this is could in fact be a civilian programme.

President Obama spoke of a “disturbing pattern” with regard to what is being characterised as Iran’s covert programme. However what is perhaps more disturbing has been the political manipulation of the press and the mass media’s apparent inability to stand up for the public interest and not be the bearer of the political agenda.

Countries that are not “on board” with the official US position are even questioned, such as The New York Times headline China’s Ties With Iran Complicate Diplomacy, which implies China’s national interests should be in alignment with US interests. 

This is a matter of whether there shall be any learning with regard to critical reporting. Such reporting is not “unpatriotic” or against the national interest. It may work against the perceived political interest, but it is certainly in the public interest to not repeat the mistakes of the past.

It is not just a matter of the quantity of tough questions and answers, the quality of the tough questioning and search for answers is what matters more at the end of the day.

Flickr images from users Hamed Saber, Bevan Koopman and Bertelsmann Stiftung