Be careful what you wish for.
Press TV, the demented Iranian propaganda outlet, has had its licence revoked for violating UK broadcasting regulations. Media regulator Ofcom found the channel was in breach of the Communications Act, which permits only editorial decision-makers to hold licences, after it emerged its London bureau (which was licensed by Ofcom) was in fact managed from Tehran (which was not). Ofcom’s request that the channel transfer editorial oversight to London or transfer its licence to Tehran was ignored by the network and so Press TV can no longer be broadcast in the UK. This coincided with the revelation that the channel had failed to pay a £100,000 fine for broadcasting a segment in which Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari, then being held captive by the Iranian government, was interviewed under duress.
The decision to revoke Press TV’s licence has been welcomed by critics of this mouthpiece for the Iranian regime. Ever since I discovered the existence of Press TV, I have been deeply troubled by its odious output and objectionable agenda. There is not a single occasion on which I watched it that I didn’t recoil and wish it out of existence. So I should be elated at this decision. However, I’m not and I’ll explain why later but first I want to outline what kind of channel we’re dealing with.
Press TV’s editorial output is a melange of pro-Ahmadinejad propaganda, antisemitic fulminating, Israel-abusing, anti-Western sabre-rattling, and any number of unhinged conspiracy theories. It warns that ‘a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities will be practically the same as the evaporation of the Zionist entity’ – the channel’s preferred term when discussing (which is to say calling for the destruction of) the State of Israel – and marked Israel’s 63rd Yom Ha’atzmaut as ‘the 63rd anniversary of the occupation of Palestine’. Needless to say, 9/11 was perpetrated by ‘world Zionism’ rather than al-Qaeda, ‘a fairytale terrorist group made up by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Israeli spy agency, Mossad’.
The channel’s website republished ‘The Walls of Auschwitz’, a pseudo-scholarly account of the scientific impossibility of the gas chambers, by Holocaust ‘revisionist’ and former UCL academic Dr Nicholas Kollerstrom. The network describes convicted Holocaust-deniers as people who ‘simply dared question the veracity of Holocaust accounts as described by the Jewish and Zionist historians’ and warns that such people ‘are spending their life in the underground jails and prisons of the European countries’.
Professional American crackpot Mark Dankof has graced Press TV’s website with his musings on the historical accuracy of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion and his theory that the US recession was caused by:
‘Jewish control of the news media, Jewish control of the American political process, disproportionate Jewish control of the international banking system through the Federal Reserve Board and an Israeli-driven American foreign policy’.
Raed Salah, an antisemitic Palestinian preacher, convicted terrorism funder, and convicted police officer assaulter, was invited on Press TV to repeat his inflammatory lie that Israel was planning to demolish the Al Aqsa mosque and build the Third Temple upon its remains.
While being generally antagonistic towards Britain, Press TV has managed to find some Brits it likes. Amongst the British far-rightists/far-leftists/who-can-tell-the-difference-any-more to feature on Press TV is regular commentator Peter Rushton. Rushton is an editor at Heritage and Destiny, journal of the neo-fascist England First Party (slogan: ‘Faith. Folk. Family.’), which campaigns for repatriation of ‘non-European immigrants back to their lands of ancestral origin’, the ‘teaching of healthy moral values’, a ban on Shechita and Halal slaughter methods, and the restoration of capital and corporal punishment. The channel also reported on Paul Flynn, the Labour MP who said Jews shouldn’t be allowed to serve as UK ambassador to Israel because they have ‘Jewish loyalties’, under the headline ‘UK MP faces quit calls for telling truth’, and quoted approvingly Flynn’s claim that ‘Israel demands full submission’.
Sometimes its conspiracies can be too delicious for words. Responding to the withdrawal of its licence, Press TV claimed that it was the victim of a plot orchestrated by the Queen in revenge for the channel’s negative coverage of the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. (It still has some way to go to best the market leader in Elizabeth II conspiracy theories, Lyndon LaRouche, a frequent American presidential candidate who believes the international narcotics trade is run by Her Majesty with the assistance of William Rees-Mogg, whom she also dispatched to carry out the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.)
Naturally, Press TV attracts all the usual suspects in the desiccated traditions of Western liberalism and radicalism, who tune into the channel for its more politically palatable rendering of reality; a world in which America is on the brink of collapse as a punishment for its hubris and imperialism, where Israel is wicked beyond description and terrorism against its citizens is justified, and where Iran and Islamist terrorists are not a threat to be fought but innocent victims of Western media misrepresentations. Press TV – like RT, Vladimir Putin’s televised insane asylum – is a laudable, if sometimes disagreeable, ‘counter-hegemonic’ ‘alternative’ news source seeking to balance the neoliberal militarism of what they darkly refer to as the ‘mainstream media’. This is the same Left that denounces chalkboard-botherer Glenn Beck for his conspiracist televangelism all the while embracing a channel whose anchors and correspondents make Beck sound like Saney McSane, Mayor of Sanetown.
Reality-based leftists concerned about the cranks in their ranks are relieved that there is one fewer tempter of the British Left. That’s nice for them but not so profitable for freedom of speech. Speech is one of the few areas in which I come close to being an absolutist libertarian. I echo Professor Alan Dershowitz’s dictum that the answer to bad speech is not less speech (censorship) but more and better speech. This is even more pressing in the case of extreme and hateful speech like that featured on Press TV. As Mill puts it: ‘Strange it is that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free speech but object to their being “pushed to an extreme”, not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case.’ While Press TV was shuttered for its violation of broadcasting law, its critics are crowing not at the upholding of an obscure provision of the Communications Act but at the silencing of a channel of which they disapprove politically. That these critics include amongst their number writers otherwise known for their ardent defence of free speech is all the more disturbing.
‘Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it,’ said Thomas Jefferson, a man who knew a thing or two about freedom of speech and censorship. And the withdrawal of Press TV’s licence is censorship. Not because Ofcom acted with political motivation or because the government leant on the regulator or because Her Majesty gave the signal. Censorship is not just the silencing of unpopular or extreme opinions but a structure of control that exerts the unwarranted authority of the state into matters that ought by right to be left to the marketplace and the realm of individual choice. Ofcom reached its decision fairly, independently, and in line with the law. But that law is wrong. The state has no business dictating the editorial policies of media outlets foreign or domestic – except, perhaps, in extreme cases during a time of war.
Nor should a regulator be empowered to fine a broadcaster for objectionable content. Press TV’s treatment of Mr Bahari was despicable and an affront to every ethic of journalism; it speaks to the channel’s rock-bottom standards and the Tehran regime’s contempt not merely for human rights but for human beings. But as a free speech libertarian, I cannot countenance the notion that such behaviour warrants a government-imposed financial penalty. The correct approach – the one in keeping with Western values of freedom and open debate – is to criticise, condemn, and deride the channel. Protest satellite companies that carry it in their ‘news’ packages. Journalists should refuse to attend press conferences to which Press TV is also invited. They should report on it, debunk it, and counter its propaganda by telling the truth about the Iranian regime and its malevolent agenda.
Iran’s opponents will chalk this up as a victory. It is no such thing. While we celebrate the bureaucratic smothering of a nasty little hate platform, Iran continues its march towards attaining nuclear weapons. Its Holocaust-denying president has repeatedly declared his intention to wipe Israel off the map (note: leftists say he was mistranslated; he was actually inviting Bibi Netanyahu out to ice cream and a movie but it got lost in translation) so we can make a rough guess of where his first warhead will be aimed. The international community should act now – not later, now – to destroy Iran’s nuclear programme – and, while they’re at it, a little dose of regime change wouldn’t go amiss.
Press TV should still be on the air. The UK government should pay for it to be in every house in Britain. Then perhaps a nation grown weary and cynical by Iraq will wake up to the threat of this regime – and the necessity of military action to topple it.