BBC coverage of the P5+1 deal with Iran which was closed on July 14th has been coming in thick and fast and those familiar with the BBC’s track record on that topic would not have been surprised by the tone and content of the plethora of reports. It is, however, worth taking a look at specific items of BBC content in order to appreciate how the BBC has chosen to portray the subject.
The edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘PM’ broadcast on the day the deal was announced included analysis (starting at 14:54 here and available for a limited period of time) from the person ultimately responsible for all the corporation’s Middle East content, Jeremy Bowen. The Middle East editor’s conversation with presenter Carolyn Quinn included some interesting between-the-lines messaging.
1) Downplaying the Iranian regime’s role in the Middle East’s ongoing conflicts and the influence that the deal’s lifting of sanctions and cash influx to Iran is likely to have on regional stability.
Bowen: “…and there are people within Iran – people in the…ehm…the…ehm…Revolutionary Guard Corps – who…ah…do want to cause trouble around the region in the way that [previous interviewee] Frum was talking about it there. But the counter-argument to what he was saying is that the…President Rouhani was elected because people hoped that he would end Iran’s isolation and thus improve the economy. So the windfall that they will be getting eventually, which is made up of frozen revenues – oil revenues especially –around the world, ah…there are people who argue that look; that will go to try to deal with loads and loads of domestic economic problems and they’ll have trouble at home if they don’t do that. If people – the argument goes on – are celebrating in Iran about the agreement, it’s not because they’ll have more money to make trouble elsewhere in the region; it’s because things might get better at home.” [emphasis added]
Bowen’s dubious portrayal of the IRGC as though they were a bunch of naughty schoolboys is telling enough but his presentation of an Iranian regime concerned about and influenced by domestic public opinion obviously ignores the fact that even when economic sanctions were affecting the Iranian people most severely, the regime still found the funds to sponsor assorted terrorist proxies in the region, to intervene in regional conflicts and, of course, to develop its nuclear programme and military industries.
2) Promotion of Israel as the belligerent party and the notion that conflict has been avoided – rather than at most postponed – by means of the agreement.
Bowen: “You know I think that this is actually a pretty spectacular diplomatic achievement. Ah…two years ago when Israel was threatening to bomb Iran’s nuclear…ah…installations and it seemed as if – even though Netanyahu was sort of reluctant to do it – they were on that course, it looked two years ago as if that was going to happen and now it looks very, very…it’s not going to happen actually. It’s not. The Israelis are not going to do anything like that at this point. Err…and to go in the space of two years from looking at what seemed to be a dead cert Middle East war into a diplomatic achievement, at a time especially when the Middle East is so full of turmoil, is a major diplomatic achievement.”
In 2013 Bowen similarly portrayed Israel as the belligerent in a report promoted on several BBC platforms. Speculations concerning the likelihood of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities have featured in BBC coverage since at least early 2012 – see examples here, here and here.
3) Promotion of the notion of a ‘moderate’ Iranian Supreme Leader.
Bowen: “The biggest problem the agreement faces right now are hardliners in Washington and in Tehran. In Tehran the Supreme Leader is likely to deal with those hardliners. They wouldn’t have made this deal if the Supreme Leader Khamenei had not been behind it.”
Bowen did not clarify to listeners that the terms of the deal now conform to conditions set by Khamenei back in April and provide sanctions relief for some of those very same “hardliners” who “make trouble in the region”. Neither did he point out that nothing in this deal has brought change to Iran’s long-standing approaches and policies.
Bowen’s messaging – and omissions -provide useful insight into the BBC’s editorial approach to the presentation of this agreement to its audiences.