III.2 The role of the news Bureaus
III.3 – the correspondents
What they had to say
“Western cultures are involved in an ongoing process of creating 'wedom' and 'theydom'; describing the people who are like us and excluding the people who are not like us. And we intend to interpret the behaviour of 'us' very differently from how we interpret the behaviour of 'them'. The most obvious example of this is where countries go to war.”
“Were we racist? Yes, to a degree we were. We certainly had our cultural prejudices and misconceptions.” (Martin Woollacott)
We usually hear about events, no matter whether local, national or international, through the media. In order to find out what is going on in the world, we may watch a news program on television, listen to the radio, browse the internet or read newspapers.
As long as the event that made the news happens close to home, we will probably not need any background information about the environment or social context, in which it took place. After all, we live here and it is therefore assumed that we know and understand the place.
But if the event takes place somewhere further away, let's say in Siberia, Madagascar or Iran, then we will probably need more information. If provided by the media, the question will then be how accurate the information provided actually is. Is what we read about, hear about or see on our TV screen a true image of the reality out there, or is it distorted like the reflection of a fairground mirror?
In this dissertation I am going to look at one specific historic event, the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and will investigate how Western newspapers have reported it. I have narrowed the scope of my research even further by concentrating on only three months in 1978 and 1979. This period of time includes December 1978 and January and February 1979. The choice was made not only because these were the final months of the revolution, but also because developments leading to the Revolution had already been going on for a considerable length of time, so one should assume that by then that the foreign correspondents in the country and their readers in Britain and Germany, would have developed an understanding of the underlying social, religious, political, economical and cultural processes.
To narrow the scope of the work even further, I have decided to look at just two newspapers from two different European countries. They are the British broadsheet The Guardian and the German daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. Both have a reputation for quality journalism in their respective country. Both are politically liberal with a slight lean to the left. The Guardian is a national newspaper, while the Süddeutsche Zeitung is a regional paper, distributed throughout the German state of Bavaria. However, despite being a regional newspaper. the Süddeutsche Zeitung is acknowledged throughout Germany as being one of its leading daily newspapers and is available at newsagents throughout the country.
In historical terms the Iranian Revolution of 1979 is a very recent event. But although only 25 years have passed, the world was a very different place then. At least as far as the media are concerned. Firstly, and probably most importantly, there was no internet in 1979. Nor did CNN exist. The era of 24 hours news television had not yet begun, and reporting via satellite-link was, although already technically possible, still a very rare occurrence. Correspondents still typed their stories on typewriters and used Telex to transmit them to their editorial offices back home. Or they used the telephone, relating their story to a typist at the other end, who then typed it out.
Newspapers and magazines were still the main sources of news in 1979, and their correspondents often crucial in creating the public perception and interpretation of events abroad.
The role of the correspondents can hardly be overestimated. They lived and worked where the news happened. They were the ones who saw events unfold with their own eyes and spoke with participants behind the scenes as well as with the activists on the street. What the readers of both, the Guardian and the Süddeutsche Zeitung, read at the breakfast table about events in Iran was what these correspondents had decided they should read and know.
It is therefore legitimate to ask, what those correspondents actually saw, heard and experienced themselves. How much did they really know and, more crucially, how much did they understand? Also, who were they, what enabled them to do the job they did? What qualified them to understand, judge and report events? The way these correspondents perceived events in Iran was crucial, because it determined the way they reported them to their readers, whose perception of Iran would in turn be formed to a substantial degree by what they had read.
Before I begin to analyse the articles from the Guardian and the Süddeutsche Zeitung , I will, for the reasons stated before, first have a closer look at the circumstances under which they were produced, and also – as far as possible - at who actually wrote them. If the author was one of the correspondents based in Iran, it is for example important to know, whether he or she spoke the language. I also want to know, what kind of knowledge they had about the country, its culture, its history, its political and social circumstances and, crucially, about the role Shiite Islam historically played in Iranian society. Of further interest is which sources these correspondents had available to them inside not only the Government and some opposition circles but also in other stratae of the society and how relevant these sources were.
I have analysed leaders, comments, background features and news items concerning the events in Iran, in order to not only find out in which way they differ, but also where they paint the same picture, where they go wrong – with hindsight – and where they were straight to the point.
Because the majority of the articles published by the Süddeutsche Zeitung were based on material received from News Bureaus, I will also investigate how News Bureaus research their articles, how they usually edit them and what the editorial terms are newspapers have to sign if they want to reprint News Bureau articles. What is interesting in this particular context, are the links the major Western News Bureaus have with their respective governments and their colonial histories. Furthermore I had the occasion to interview the DPA's 1978's correspondent in Iran, who could shed some more light on the way News Bureaus work. An interesting question in this context – although not one I will attempt to answer - is, how much had actually been lost in translation. That there were losses seems quite likely, if one considers that some of the sources the News Bureau used were probably in Farsi, while the News Bureau text itself was in some cases in English or French which then had to be translated into German.
Western foreign correspondents in Tehran were outsiders. They may have had an understanding of the local culture, mentality, politics, and history, they may have even mastered the language, but ultimately they remained outsiders. None of them, at least in the case of the two newspapers I am investigating, were of Muslim faith or had a deeper understanding of the specific Iranian variety of Twelver Shi'a. But, can one assume that their reporting from Tehran and their accord of events was tainted by prejudices, misunderstandings, misinterpretations or simple ignorance? Some of the articles I have looked at seem to hint at this possibility, which, at least according to Alan McKee, should actually be the rule rather than the exception.
While researching the matter I was able to conduct interviews with Mr. Martin Woollacott, who was one of two correspondents the Guardian had based in Tehran in 1978 and 1979, and he expressed the opinion, that he and his colleagues had probably not been free from prejudices and that this had most likely been reflected in their reporting.
Other interviews with Mr. Rudolph Chimelli of Süddeutsche Zeitung and Mr. Reinhard Neu of DPA confirmed Mr. Woollacott's viewpoints.
According to Daniel Hallin:
[...] news media coverage takes its cues from political elites, rarely produces coverage within the deviant sphere, but either reflects elite consensus on an issue or reflects elite consensus on an issue of elite legitimate controversy.
This leads to the interesting question whether Western governments may actually have used the correspondents to create public opinion favourable to their political, military and economic agenda with regards to the Shah and to Iran. It would exceed the scope of this dissertation to look into this particular matter as thoroughly as it deserves.
First however it is important to look at the historic events so as to better understand the consequent media coverage of them.
Modern Revolutions are rare occurrences and unusual even in the Third World. Not surprisingly then, that the phenomenon has attracted considerable scholarly interest, which in turn has led to a number of revolution theories and attempts to define the necessary stages events have to go through in order to be recognized as a proper revolution.
The Iranian revolution of 1979, the last of five major revolutionary movements in Iran since the late 19th century, has many elements or stages in common with revolutions in other parts of the world. But in other important aspects it was different and unique. Even today, more than a quarter of a century after the event, the Iranian revolution still puzzles historians, social scientists and political scientists alike. This particular revolution has stubbornly defied established Western theories of revolution and is still notoriously hard to to explain.
The American Historian John Foran has analysed where the challenge for social theory lies. Most theories of revolution are based on the works of Karl Marx and Alexis de Toqueville, who between them have raised the majority of issues that still interest theorists today: The analysis of classes and coalitions, the role played by the state, international pressures and the relative weight of ideas, among others. Others like the comparative historians Lyford Edwards, Crane Brinton and George S. Pettee had in the 1920s and 1930s worked out sequences of stages that they thought all major revolutions passed through. The critique of their work is, though, that it offers descriptions of revolutions rather then telling us why they occur. Description or not, a fair number of their criteria do actually apply to the Iranian revolution..
Structuralist attempts to create a universal theory of revolution as undertaken by American social scientists including Theda Skocpol, Barrington Moore or Charles Jeffrey Paige also failed to explain the peculiarities of the Iranian Revolution. The importance of religion as a revolutionary ideology, the absence of the peasantry as well as that of a huge working class, the use of peaceful mass-demonstrations rather than that of militant violence and the role of strikes as a powerful weapon were some of the characteristics of the Iranian revolution which did not fit any of the existing theoretical models. But to put too much emphasis on the “cultural” aspects of the Revolution, thus reducing it to Shi'i Islam, as Theda Skocpol later did, ignored of course, that the revolutionary movement was in fact heterogeneous and included the communist Tudeh party as well as Mojaheddin guerillas, the National Front, liberal intellectuals, the Bazaaris, leftist women-groups, oilworkers and students. Other, often overlooked, factors unique to the Iranian Revolution were the pre-existence of well established organisational and communications-structures provided by the Mosques, and the extensive use of what Annabelle Sreberny-Mohammadi and Ali Mohammadi call “the small media”, i.e. leaflets, tape-recordings, booklets, flyers, posters, ad-hoc newspapers and brochures.
There were further peculiarities to this revolution. One of the most puzzling questions is perhaps why it was successful at all. One must not forget that Shah Reza Pahlavi had an army at his disposal, which was regarded as the most powerful and best equipped in Asia and the Middle East, rivalling even that of Israel. A 400,000 strong army with some of the most sophisticated weaponry of the time in its arsenals; an army, that was deemed to be a hundred percent loyal not to a constitution, a parliament or any other government institution, but to the Shah alone. Still, this very powerful army was not able to prevent or to successfully fight the revolution. One of the reasons is certainly that Shah Reza Pahlavi shied away from unleashing the full power of his military against the populace, although it is still not clear why. The American Institute for National Strategic Studies has published a McNair paper in which Mark Roberts takes a look into this question and comes up with some compelling ideas.
Roberts argues that there were a number of reasons why the military was not able to prevent the regime's fall from power. One was that the army was simply neither trained nor equipped for deployment within Iran. While the Iranian army was well prepared to defend the country in the case of an external aggressor, it lacked the means to confront civil unrest. Army units had never been trained to police riots, and had not even possessed the equipment necessary to not only resist but to disperse mass protests. Sending inexperienced soldiers, who were only trained for armed conflicts with external aggressors, into a situation where they had to face unarmed and peaceful protesters was a sure recipe for disaster and bloodshed. Indeed, there were several instances where army units had opened fired, the most notorious one being the events on the 8th of September 1978. On this day, which later became known as 'Black Friday', thousands had gathered in Tehran's Jaleh Square for a religious demonstration, despite the fact that the government had declared martial law the day before – although there have been claims, that the government had not actually publicized it.
The soldiers ordered the crowd to disperse, but the order was simply ignored. When it became clear, that the crowd would not disperse the soldiers opened fire, killing and seriously wounding a large number of people. The accounts regarding the number of casualties differ vastly, but it is certain that several hundred people were killed and that many more were wounded during this moment of excessive use of force. The events of Friday, the 8th of September 1978 probably marked the 'point of no return' for the revolution, and also demonstrated how quickly a situation could spin out of control and turn a demonstration into a massacre. The military leaders as well as the Shah himself were probably well aware of this and may for this reason have refrained from using the full force of the army against the populace. But other factors may have played a role too, a rather important one being the Shah-centred command-structure of the Iranian military.
Reza Pahlavi's preferred method of government could be best described as divide and rule. The whole system was centred onto him, politically, and also militarily. The commanders of all branches of the Iranian forces reported directly and only to him. He was the supreme commander. There was no general staff or any other kind of infrastructure which would allow the different branches of the military to communicate directly with each other. All internal communications had to go through Reza Pahlavi, which allowed him almost total control over the military but also rendered the military practically ineffective should he not be present. The military was therefore barely capable of coordinated action without the Shah, and he was clearly reluctant to grant his army this capability.
One might also ask how sure the Government could actually be about the loyalty of the army. Inside the forces there was a clear social gap between a caste of highly privileged senior ranking officers and a new generation of young, far less privileged officers. The latter were mostly university graduates and had during their time at university been exposed to islamist, leftist, nationalist and other ideas hostile to the Pahlavi monarchy. They often despised the top rank officers. There were a number of desertions, celebrated by the opposition, and even cases, where young officers had opened fire on other soldiers when those followed orders to shoot into a crowd. So their loyalty may have seemed questionable to the Shah and his government. It also seemed questionable whether conscripted common soldiers were really prepared to open fire on their own people.
Khomeini must have guessed that the army was quite probably not as loyal as the Shah wanted it to be. Even after occasions like the Black Friday massacre, he urged his followers not to turn against the army as their enemy, and he also continued to call unto the soldiers to join the people, thus hoping he could create a rift between the army and the government.
Roberts' sums it up:
In spite of its advanced state of readiness in terms of weapons, size, and training, the military had no well-developed sense of institutional identity because of the Shah's idiosyncratic compartmentalization of the armed forces and his divide-and-rule politics. For this reason, the armed forces, although militarily proficient, were lacking any independent decision making capability, sense of identity, or ability to coordinate among themselves. These factors would weigh heavily against them during the fall of the monarchy.
The Shah had in the past repressed his people in a manner, that had prompted Amnesty International to report in 1975 that:
No country in the world has a worse record in human rights than Iran... The Shah of Iran retains his benevolent image despite the highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture that is beyond belief.
The human rights organisation estimated that there were between 25,000 and 100,000 political prisoners in 1975. The Shah's American trained and armed secret police and intelligence service SAVAK was feared and hated in Iran and had established an extremely brutal reign of terror. Shah Reza Pahlavi had never been reluctant to use excessive repressive force against his own people. So it seems even more puzzling, that he proved so indecisive, when his rule was so obviously challenged by the growing revolutionary movement.
Both, the American Ambassador to Iran, William H. Sullivan, and the British Ambassador Anthony Parsons describe the Shah as a man who was seemingly removed from the realities in his country for most of the final months of the revolution, and who only as late as the autumn of 1978 had realized, that the situation was indeed serious. But does a supposed misjudgement of the situation alone explain, why the Shah did not order the army to suppress the revolutionary movement? Another, more likely explanation may be, that the monarch was of the believe that America was not any longer willing to support him unquestioningly, and that President Carter did indeed not want him to unleash the army against the demonstrators. He had reason to be unsure about Carter's stance towards him. Carter had, while he was running for office, on several occasions publicly criticized America's arms policy toward Iran. He also had later, when he was president, declared that he would work with international Human Rights organizations in order to moderate the Shah's repression, while stressing his moral values and the importance of ethics for American Foreign Policy under his presidency. This had alarmed Reza Pahlavi, who at one point early on in Carter's presidency was convinced that America would consequently attempt to remove him from power. Although his relationship with the Carter-administration should later improve significantly, it is likely that the Shah continued to be suspicious towards the real American motives, and that this may have been one of the reasons for his reluctance to use full military force against the revolutionary masses.
Another factor important to the understanding of the success of the revolution was, that Iranians were actually experienced revolutionaries, a point John Foran likes to make. Indeed, the pattern that had evolved during the course of the revolutionary movement was a familiar one. Iran's recent history had been punctuated by revolutions on several occasions. Similar broad coalitions between the Shiite ulama, nationalists, Bazaar merchants, shopkeepers and artisans, students and intellectuals had been active in the Tobacco Protest (1891), the Constitutional Revolution (1905-11), the re-instating of the Parliament (Majles) (1921) or in the period 1951-1953, when Reza Pahlavi was forced into exile by the nationalist movement lead by Mossadegh. Many of the alliances which formed the revolutionary movement had been tested successfully before.
An historically relative new but nevertheless important group participating in the movement was consisting of people who had recently migrated to the cities from rural areas of Iran. They were the victims of the Shah's 'White Revolution' of 1963. The land reform which was part of the 'White Revolution' had made almost 90 % of the sharecroppers into small landowners, but the land given to them was in most cases not big enough to make a living from it, so they and their families had to migrate into the cities in search of work and income. These newly arrived urbanites usually lived in hardship, were disgruntled and harvested deep felt anger against the Shah and his cronies. They formed the majority of the crowds who were on the streets when the demonstrations gathered force and numbers.
In the autumn of 1978 the Shah and his government were effectively isolated. They had the army and the police on their side, but almost the entire population against them, including religious minorities such as the Iranian Jews or the Zoroastrians who had openly declared their support for the revolution and for Khomeini.
How was it possible, that such a broad coalition could form behind a religious leader and what role did Shiite Islam play as the driving force of this revolution, if it indeed was the driving force?
Khomeini himself points out that Shi'a Islam, unlike Sunni Islam, has never accepted the dogma that Muslims should be obedient to governments, if those were not in accordance with Islamic rules. He further argues, that it is the obligation of Muslims to fight illegitimate oppressive governments and to take action in order to ensure that a government is socially just and in accordance with Islam. He continues:
According to Shi'ite belief, only the Imams or those who act on their behalf are the legitimate holders of authority; all other governments are illegitimate. This belief has been expressed throughout history in Shi'a uprisings against different governments. Sometimes it was possible to resist; at other times, it was not. If the Iranian people are now rising up against the Shah, they are doing so as an Islamic duty.
The question of legitimacy was brought up again and again by Khomeini; in his lectures, in interviews, essays or in his taped messages he repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of the Shah and his governments, also explicitly pointing out that he was brought to power through a coup and with the help of foreign powers. Foreign meddling with Iran's affairs was another point he continued to emphasize.
The country had throughout its recent history suffered forceful economic, political and military interference from foreign powers. Since the late 19th century Iran had not only had to deal with aggressive Russian threats but also with the British Empire, that had tried to consolidate its military, economic and political power in the region. In 1907 the British Empire and the Tsarist Russian Empire divided Iran into protection zones. When it was discovered, that Iran possessed huge oil resources, the British were quick to monopolize Iran's oil economy. The newly set up AIOC (Anglo Iranian Oil Company) controlled not only the oil fields but also Refineries and – most importantly – Iran's oil trade. A deal struck in 1933 guaranteed the state fixed royalties, but these turned out later to be only a fraction of the real oil revenues.
Throughout most of the first half of the 20th century Iran remained – though most of the time at least to a certain extent a sovereign state – de facto dependent, threatened and controlled by Russia and Britain. The country was at times – although neutral- a battleground (WW1, ) a British protectorate (1919-21) and occupied (1941), the occupation being a result of Shah Reza Pahlevi having expressed sympathy for the Axis powers.
Towards the end of World War II – Iran had joined the allies in 1943 - the country faced yet another Russian threat. In the north the Soviets encouraged and supported left wing officials and also demands by Azerbeijanis and Kurds for autonomy. At the same time in other areas the radical leftwing Tudeh party grew in numbers and importance, while the British mobilised tribal leaders, landlords and religious leaders against Tudeh and the trade unions in the south. A new factor was the growing number of American advisers and military personnel in the country.
More importantly though was the rise of Iranian nationalism as a powerful political movement. The National Front united a broad spectre of political groups. The 1950 elections to the majles (the Iranian parliament) centred around oil, the National Front, led by Mohammed Mossadegh made major gains. The party opposed subservience to foreign interests and once in power Mossadegh nationalized the oil industry (1951). At that time the AIOC 'paid much more income taxes to the British Government than it did in royalties to the Iranian Government'
America was initially only vaguely interested in what was going on in Iran. It used its border regions with the Soviet Union for spying and surveillance operations into Russian territory, but had no significant interest in Iran's interior politics. Mossadegh was regarded as an anitcommunist and as an able statesman.
However, that would change. The Truman administration became increasingly hostile to nationalisation and the British as well as the Americans began to portray Mossadegh as a dangerous fanatic who was about to turn Iran into an ally of the Soviets. When the administration gave the CIA free hand to solve the problem, Mossadegh's fate was sealed.
His overthrow returned power to Shah Reza Pahlevi who was quick to consolidate it. He marginalised Parliament, effectively destroyed the National Front, the communist Tudeh party and the powerful trade unions while aligning Iran as a staunch ally to America.
Given this history of foreign interference in Iran's national affairs, it is easy to see why any kind of nationalist and anti-imperialist rhetoric would strike a chord with a majority of Iranians. Thus Khomeini did not hesitate to play the anti-imperialist and nationalist card continuously, labelling the Shah 'America's lackey' and his government a 'bunch of foreign puppets'.
But Khomeini's rhetoric did not stop there. He was familiar with both Marxist thinking and with thoughts of the kind of Sunni political Islam that had emerged in Egypt and whose main thinkers were Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Rida, Hassan Al-Banna or Sayyid Qtb. He had probably also read Mowlam Mawdudi. After all Khomeini had been an islamic scholar himself, whose lectures in Ethics in Quom had attracted many students, and he was a prolific writer.
In his speeches and interviews as well as in his prayers and the recorded messages to his followers, he had easily mixed socialist phrases with religious statements and nationalist furore. He did this in a way that appealed to dedicated Muslims and leftwing guerilla alike, attracted feminists and muslim women and united all of them with oil workers, liberal intellectuals and the urban poor.
Khomeini was an astute religio-political thinker, whose variant of Shi'ite Islamic ideology was as much based on Aristotle, Plato and the catholic scholasticism of the Middle Ages as on the Quran, the Hadith and the works of modern Western thinkers.
As stated at the beginning of this chapter, the Iranian revolution has baffled many scholars and still does with its more unique features. The revolution seemed to have been confusing even for those who took actively part in it. Abbas Amir-Entezam for instance, from February 1979 until August 1979 Deputy Prime Minister of the Bazargan-Government, who in December 1979 was imprisoned for alleged treason and kept in prison for the next 25 years, is certain that the Revolution was indeed an American plot. In an interview with Fariba Amini, daughter of Nosratollah Amini, he claims:
“The Truman administration had concluded that in order to destroy the Soviet Union without going into war, seeing that both nations had the bomb, and avoiding a global nuclear catastrophe, they would use other plans. They had a 50 year plan to get rid of the Soviet Union without actually engaging in war. I am convinced, just like Zbginiew Brzezinski and Noam Chomsky, that what took place 1979 in Iran, the rest of the events in the Middle East – the Iran-Iraq war, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Iraq's invasion of Kuwait were part of this plan which eventually led to the destruction of the Soviet Union.
 John Hartley, quoted in Alan McKee, Textual Analysis – A Beginner's Guide, p. 43, paragraph 3
 Martin Woollacott was one of two correspondents The Guardian had placed in Tehran during the Revolution, the quote is taken from an interview with the author
 Citation taken from Kotha, R. R., British Media Coverage of Crisis in Developing Countries, unpublished master's thesis, University of Manchester, Institute of Development Policy and Management, 2004, p. 22
 For further reading on the relations between news media and decision makers in the foreign policy arena I recommend Hallin, Daniel “The Uncensored War” and Herman, Edward & Chomsky, Noam, “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media”
 Foran, J. (1994). The Iranian Revolution of 1977-9: A Challenge for Social Theory. in: J. Foran (Ed.), A Century of Revolution: Social Movements in Iran, London: UCL Press Limited, pp. 160-162
 Sreberny-Mohammadi, Annabelle & Mohammadi, Ali (1994). Small Media, Big Revolution - Communication, Culture and the Iranian Revolution
 Roberts, Mark J., McNair Paper # 48, Khomeini's Incorporation of the Iranian Military, January 1996, retrieved from http://www.ndu.edu/inss/mcnair/mcnair48/m48cont.html
 Roberts, Mark J., McNair Paper # 48, Khomeini's Incorporation of the Iranian Military, January 1996, retrieved from http://www.ndu.edu/inss/mcnair/mcnair48/m48cont.html
 Roberts, Mark J., McNair Paper # 48, Khomeini's Incorporation of the Iranian Military, Chapter 2, January 1996, retrieved from http://www.ndu.edu/inss/mcnair/mcnair48/m48cont.html
 John Foran, The Iranian Revolution of 1977-79: A Challenge for Social Theory, in J. Foran (Ed.)(1994). A Century of Revolution - Social Movements in Iran. London: UCL Press Ltd., p. 170
 Khomeini, R. A. H. (. Algar (Ed.)(1981). Islam and Revolution. Berkeley: Mizan Press., p 327, translated by Hamid Algar
 Keddie, N.R.(2003), Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution, Yale University Press. p.133
 Mossadegh's confidant and personal attorney, former mayor of Tehran
 Quote taken from: Amini, Fariba, “Perseverance and honor: Interview with Abbas Amir-Entezam”, retrieved from http://www.iranian.com/FaribaAmini/2006/February/Interview/index.html
- Quote paper
- BA(Hons) Edgar Klüsener (Author), 2006, The Iranian Revolution of 1978/1979 and how Western newspapers reported it, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/60069