The authorities on criminality – The West vs Iran

“Journalism is the only profession explicitly protected by the U.S. Constitution, because journalists are supposed to be the check and balance on government. We’re supposed to be holding those in power accountable. We’re not supposed to be their megaphone. That’s what the corporate media have become.” [Amy Goodman, Host and Executive producer of Democracy Now!] [1]

As readers of the Irish Times we enter into a ‘contract’ each day. For their part they provide “the best journalism in Ireland: reports that are honest, accurate and comprehensive; and analysis that is informed, fair and based on the facts.” [The Irish Times – Message from the Editor, Geraldine Kennedy] [2] And for our part we offer ourselves as potential customers to it’s advertising partners.

It is our contention that at least one of us is failing to uphold their part of the contract. And given Ireland’s descent into rampant, unsustainable consumerism, that part is most probably the Irish Times’.

Two months in Iran

Between November 1st 2006 and January 1st 2007 the Irish Times printed 70 articles mentioning either Iran’s ‘destabilising’ role in the Middle East or what is referred to as their ‘nuclear ambitions’ – more than one article everyday.

The context was almost without exception based on three poorly founded, yet unquestioned, assumptions:

1) The present Iranian regime poses a serious threat to the Middle East and potentially the rest of the world.

Charles Krauthammer’s writing encapsulates this assumption, without the IT’s usual conservative subtlety: “With anti-Semitism re-emerging in Europe and rampant in the Islamic world; with Iran acquiring the ultimate weapon of genocide and proclaiming its intention to wipe out the world’s largest Jewish community (Israel).” [3]

2) This threat must be dealt with, though the method for dealing with this threat is as yet undefined. It may well involve some sort of military ‘intervention’.

Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, declared that a “refusal to preserve the possibility – however remote – of military action has weakened it’s [the UN] hand as it confronts one of the most significant challenges of the 21st century: the possible emergence of a radical Middle East government with nuclear weapons.” [4]

3) The United Nations is the body best positioned to deal with this threat, though the lead will most definitely come from the US/UK and, perhaps secondarily, Israel.

“Iran has been referred to the United Nations Security Council for failing to allay fears that it is trying to produce nuclear weapons under the cover of a civilian atomic programme.”…”It says that it only wants to generate electricity, but the United States and the European Union’s top powers are pushing for sanctions against Tehran.” [5]

The gap for dissent

It may be wise to discuss first that reporting which diverges from the above theme, as it would be unfair to consider the entirety of the Irish Times’ output under this blanket of assumption. Either way, it will not take long.

Dissent from the ‘official’ line, as defined by the above assumptions, has come from only a handful of sources: Lara Marlowe, Russia, Iran and the CIA.

Lara Marlowe was the only Irish Times journalist to report on the obvious double standards being shown by Iran’s critics:

“It was hypocritical for nuclear powers to preach at non-nuclear states, Dr ElBaradei said. “How does that logic fit, when you read in the newspapers that the United Kingdom is spending $200 billion to modernise its Trident submarines?”” [Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)] [6]

Russia’s defense of Iran extended only to requests to temper the extent to which sanctions are imposed. [7] While a secret CIA assessment on Iranian nuclear activities reported by Seymour Hersh stated they have yet to find any conclusive evidence that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Though “the assessment was said to have warned that it would be a mistake to conclude that not finding evidence of a weapons programme merely meant that the Iranians had hidden it well.” And of course “the White House rubbished the story as “error-filled”.” [8]

The ‘essence of the whole thing’

Historian Brain P. Murphy in his book ‘The Origins and Organisation of British Propaganda in Ireland 1920’ [9] described how the British in their efforts to counter Republican propaganda settled upon the ingenious idea of integrating “official” reports into news.

Basil Clarke, the then Head of the Dublin station of the British ‘Publicity Department’, described this method as follows:

“the labelling of news in some way as “official” (“Dublin Castle”, “GHQ”, etc) is the essence of the whole thing; the whole system of propaganda by news hangs on it. For by virtue of that label our news gets monopoly value, a sort of hall-mark or copyright. It is that hall-mark which gives to the news (in the eyes of the newspapers if not in the eyes of the readers) a news value so high that they cannot afford to be without it. Take away that hall-mark and you ruin the whole business.”

To this end the media were sufficiently compliant, Brian Murphy writes:

“Clarke claimed that “the issue of news gives us a hold on the Press. They cannot afford to neglect us or put our reports into the waste paper basket”. As evidence of this, Clarke maintained that Dublin journalists, even those representing the Freeman’s Journal, who had once rejected Dublin Castle reports, were now asking for them.”

This method of ‘news management’ is now pervasive throughout media, it is very rarely revealed as propaganda, and when it is, the dominant media is loath to use the term; instead it is repackaged as searching insight into the world of the powerful. Those who are best at this rebranding are of course amply rewarded for their ‘journalism’.

The leaders of the ‘free world’ no longer have to worry as to whether their actions will be received in the intended context. They draw the boundaries of context; they construct the status quo; and the media, more accurately the dominant corporate media, act as a conduit to the public.

Thus, the criminals responsible for the illegal invasion of Iraq are now offered as the authority on Iran’s criminality.

Iraq – a historical precedent

Analysis of these articles shows a worrying trend. In all but a handful of cases, the reports gave the views of US, UK and Israeli officials without any counter argument or critical examination of the claims. In essence, the Irish Times followed the government line on the issue. This echoes the media’s failure to report accurately the case for war in Iraq. A study conducted by the universities of Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds of the UK media’s performance found that “more than 80% of all stories [took] the government line on the moral case for war”:

“Our findings fail to offer strong evidence of media coverage that was autonomous in its approach to the official narratives and justifications for the war in Iraq.” [11]

What is most surprising it that there is no obvious reason the Irish Times should come under the same pressure as the UK media.

Analysis revealed that instances of ‘anti-Iranian’ sentiment were in the vast majority of cases not rebuked by way of offering any form of counter argument. Where there was a counter argument it amounted to little more than reference to ‘official’ reservations such as those conceded in the non-partisan Iraq Study Group report. [12]

In each of these articles reference was made to either Iran’s ‘destabilising role’ in the Middle East or it’s ‘nuclear ambitions’ (in many cases used, where it was not simply stated, to insinuate it’s desire to obtain nuclear weapons). Little evidence was offered to support either of these contentions, and no counter argument offered to refute them. Thus the reader is left with the impression that those accusations are correct.

Statements such as “The West fears Iran is trying to develop atomic weapons” and “The West believes Iran’s uranium enrichment work is a cover for bomb-making” were given as fact, and only an Iranian response permitted. Here the reporting availed of a suspect generalisation, ‘The West’s’ ‘fears’ and ‘beliefs’ are apparently congruent with those sentiments expressed primarily by the US and UK governments, or more accurately, whatever interests Messers Bush and Blair act as mouthpiece for.

Reference to Iran came in the following forms:

“Do you really want to get yourself into a situation in which you’re talking about allowing the Iranians to continue to acquire the nuclear technology that will allow them to build a nuclear weapon.” [US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice] [13]

“Iran threatens openly and explicitly to erase Israel from the map. Can you tell me that their wish for atomic weapons is the same thing as with America, France, Israel and Russia?” [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert] [14]

“You have before you the only French political leader who has expressed herself against Iran having access to a civil nuclear programme. That is the greatest danger for the security of Israel and the rest of the world.” [French presidential candidate Ségolène Royal] [15]

“The Bush administration has maintained consistently that military action against Iran remains “on the table” as an option for preventing Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.” [Denis Staunton, The Irish Times] [16]

In only one of these cases did the report provide a counter argument; this one case was reference to Iran’s “inalienable right …to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination.” An unavoidable fact. [Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, NPT] [17]

More balanced accounts came in the form:

“Iran argues that its nuclear activities are solely for civilian purposes, while the EU believes it is trying to develop weapons.” [Jamie Smyth, The Irish Times] [18] [19]

But here again, the reader is left with the unenviable task of discerning without sufficient evidence which of these officials to believe, ‘The West’ or Iran. Thankfully, there are clues…

Eurasia is the enemy. Eurasia has always been the enemy

In the lead up to the Iraq war it became clear, to those that had considered ‘the evidence’, there are certain pre-requisites needed to sway public opinion in favour of military intervention: There must be a threat, better still an imminent threat and crucially, a character homicidal enough to carry it out.

The Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is without doubt a hardliner, blithely suppressing the freedoms of ordinary Iranians; yet there exists many similar characters in the world, few of whom sustain the ire of Western elite as much as this man. Indeed President Ahmadinejad’s brutality does not even compare to that currently being inflicted by the world’s ‘great’ democrats. Therefore some ‘linguistic creativity’ is necessary to properly expose the man’s ‘true’ homicidal nature. In the two month period we are analysing here, the Irish Times managed to misrepresent the same speech by President Ahmadinejad six times. A further two reports in January and February, made the same distortion, though it should come as no surprise, the Irish Times has made this ‘mistake’ numerous times over the last year and a half. It is now offered as fact; President Ahmadinejad intends to ‘wipe Israel from the map’. [20]

We wrote to the Irish Times in May of last year:

“Madam [Geraldine Kennedy, Editor of the Irish Times],

Charles Krauthammer’s continued misrepresentation of the Iranian president’s remarks on Israel and its leaders now borders on the ridiculous. “The world has paid ample attention to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s declaration that Israel must be destroyed,” he writes (Opinion, May 8th).

The Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute, gives the following as the correct translation of the president’s remark: “Imam [Khomeini] said: ‘This regime that is occupying Qods [ Jerusalem] must be eliminated from the pages of history.’ This sentence is very wise. The issue of Palestine is not an issue on which we can compromise.” [21]

Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan stated in an off the record email exchange: “I object to the characterization of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as having “threatened to wipe Israel off the map.” I object to this translation of what he said on two grounds. First, it gives the impression that he wants to play Hitler to Israel’s Poland, mobilizing an armored corps to move in and kill people. But the actual quote, which comes from an old speech of [Ayatollah] Khomeini, does not imply military action, or killing anyone at all.

The second reason is that it is just an inexact translation. The phrase is almost metaphysical. He quoted Khomeini that “the occupation regime over Jerusalem should vanish from the page of time.” It is in fact probably a reference to some phrase in a medieval Persian poem. It is not about tanks.” [22]

While Mr Krauthammer may disagree fundamentally with everything the Iranian President has to say, he must at least be obliged to find issue with what he actually said, not what it would be useful for him to have said. There is no excuse for this sort of blatant propaganda.

Yours etc,

David Manning” [Email 8/05/07] [23]

The letter must have contained some degree of newsworthiness as the Irish Times chose to print it, though editing out that shown in italics, no doubt due to ‘lack of space’. While it could be considered a fairly innocuous observation given the context of Krauthammer’s usually virulent analyses, the Irish Times felt it necessary to print a counterbalance, notably double in length:

“According to David Manning (May 12th), your columnist Charles Krauthammer is guilty of “blatant propaganda” in misrepresenting the Iranian president’s remarks on Israel. Mr Manning quotes from a translation of President Ahmadinejad’s October 2005 speech which appears to show its intention as one of mere regime change rather than destruction of the state of Israel. But the translation, by the Middle East Media Research Institute, of the speech as a whole shows clearly that the Krauthammer interpretation is the correct one.

The speech, delivered at a “World without Zionism” conference, is full of bellicose rhetoric from start to finish, and portrays Israel as the spearhead of the West in the Islamic world which must be eliminated: “This occupying country [ Israel] is in fact a front of the World of Arrogance in the heart of the Islamic world. They have in fact built a bastion from which they can expand their rule to the entire Islamic world. . .Very soon, this stain of disgrace [ ie Israel] will vanish from the centre of the Islamic world – and this is attainable.” [Dermot Meleady, Extract of a letter to the Irish Times, May 17th 2006] [24]

The writer’s reference to ‘the whole text’ is ironic given he quotes selectively. In fact both before and after the particular sentences the writer chose to distinguish Mr. Ahmadinejad actually states ‘regime’ as oppose to ‘Israel’, which in the writer’s choice is an inference made by the translator.

This is of course somewhat irrelevant. The speech itself is obviously anti-Zionist, but it is not a call to war or a thinly veiled threat, no matter what the translation. It is not equivalent to the ‘anti-Iranian’ rhetoric of the US, the UK and Israel. There are no Iranian plans for strategic attacks on nuclear facilities or the confrontational deployment of warships in the Mediterranean Sea. A significant departure from the sanitised language of the media’s oft echoed Western political rhetoric: “all options are on the table.” [25]

At any rate, are we to understand that journalists and political leaders choose to adapt a single sentence from the speech to summarise their interpretation of it’s entirety? And further, to use it to identify a President’s foreign policy goals? Is this a professional approach to reporting?

The non-existent critics

According to the Irish Times the case against Iran is clear; through it’s nuclear ambitions and regionally destabilising influence it poses a threat to ‘the West’. Much as with the case for Iraq, the majority of evidence, where it exists, emanates from ‘official’ sources. There exists no discernable contrary evidence, other than ‘official’ reservations as to the measures required to subdue the threat.

In the two-month period analysed reference to relatively independent sources was extremely limited, for instance the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) was mentioned in just 5 articles. But these few mentions provided nothing in the way of revealing Iran’s relationship with the agency.

Journalist John Pilger gave this candid account earlier this year:

“Iran possesses not a single nuclear weapon, nor has it ever threatened to build one; the CIA estimates that, even given the political will, Iran is incapable of building a nuclear weapon before 2017, at the earliest. Unlike Israel and the United States, Iran has abided by the rules of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which it was an original signatory, and has allowed routine inspections under its legal obligations – until gratuitous, punitive measures were added in 2003, at the behest of Washington. No report by the International Atomic Energy Agency has ever cited Iran for diverting its civilian nuclear programme to military use.”
[Iran: The War Begins, The New Statesman, February 2007] [26]

Other high profile experts in the field have also been ignored in this reporting. Dr. Hans Blix, a former UN weapons inspector who oversaw the successful disarming of Iraq, has not been mentioned once by the Irish Times in the last six months. Though he has not been silent on the issue:

“Hans Blix, the former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, said Monday the world’s approach to Iran’s nuclear ambitions humiliated Tehran by insisting it stop research without giving any security guarantees. Blix, who was chief U.N. inspector for Iraq after 16 years as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Tehran feared for its government’s safety, with U.S. troops in neighboring Iraq and in Afghanistan.” [27]

“[Iran] are within a legal right to do so [Develop civilian nuclear power]. And they assert it is for peaceful purposes.” [28]

Scott Ritter, a chief weapons inspector in Iraq between 1991 and 1998, was referenced 3 times by the Irish Times in the 6 months before the invasion of Iraq. [29] In comparison, the non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction were mentioned in 420 articles during the same period. His comments, as we now know, would have made the case for war that much less clear cut. He has not been mentioned once in the last six months.

In a recent interview with Scott Ritter stated:

“Well you know what, there’s nothing but doubt that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. There is no evidence whatsoever! I need to reinforce that point: There is no evidence whatsoever to back up the rhetoric that the Bush administration has put out there that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program.”

It is almost impossible to reconcile these authoritative views with the ‘honest, accurate and comprehensive’ analysis the Irish Times chooses to print. Which begs the rhetorical question, if we are to be truly free to exercise our democratic responsibilities, should the media, increasingly the source of our understanding of the world, be held accountable for it’s failings?

Suggested Action

Please write to the Irish Times to ask they provide a more accurate vision of the West’s stand off with Iran.

Geraldine Kennedy, Editor

Letters to the Editor

Lara Marlowe

MediaBite supports an open and constructive debate with the media and individual journalists, please ensure all correspondence is polite. Please copy all emails to

* Hans Blix was mentioned in a review of The Wizard of Oz in December 2006

** “The moral case against war has a moral answer: it is the moral case for removing Saddam. It is not the reason we act. That must be according to the UN mandate on weapons of mass destruction.” [Tony Blair’s speech to the Labour Party’s spring conference, February 2003]

*** In a search of the Irish Times archive Scott Ritter returns two results in the last six months, though these are not references to current affairs.

9. SpinWatch
10. ‘The Origins and Organisation of British Propaganda in Ireland 1920’, pg 28, published by the Aubane Historical Society and SpinWatch
20. [Philip Pullella, ‘Rabbi accuses Ahmadinejad of ‘trying to imitate Hitler’’]
25. US President George Bush responding to a question at the White House about whether the US was considering military action

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