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Minefield for journalists

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 15:51 UK time, Friday, 2 February 2007

Is Iran supplying advanced weapons to Iraqi insurgents and Shia militia who use them to attack American and British troops? Is Iran getting North Korean help to prepare a nuclear test? Have Iranian weapons experts been helping Hamas in their fight with Fatah in Gaza? These are just some of the allegations that have been made against Iran and reported in various media over the past few weeks.

The World TonightOn the other hand, is the US administration making allegations against Iran and feeding disinformation to journalists in order to prepare public opinion for an attack on Iran?

Forgive the metaphor but reporting the - so far rhetorical - escalation of tension between Washington and Tehran is a minefield for conscientious journalists, especially as we need to remember what happened in the run up to the invasion of Iraq.

Then a lot of claims were made by the US and British governments about Iraq's weapons’ capabilities and intentions which were reported widely and could well have helped swing public opinion behind confrontation with Iraq. As we know, no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq and critics of the war have accused many journalists of being too credulous and not rigorous enough in reporting such claims.

In our editorial meetings we have discussed several times how we should cover the growing tension between the US and Iran - and there are some hard facts such as the US naval build up in the Persian Gulf - but we are aware of the need to be very careful which claims and counter-claims we report, and the need to tell listeners when we don't know things as well as when we do know.

This Wednesday (listen here), we decided to report that the Americans are stepping up pressure on Iran, and ask whether what we have been hearing from officials, former officials, analysts and journalists means the US is preparing the ground for an attack on Iran.

The former US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, known for his hawkish views, had given an interview to BBC World Service saying the US may need to take - unspecified - action against Iran over its nuclear programme, while the former US National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, now more dovish than when he was in office, told the Today programme there are members of the Bush administration who want to take military action against Iran and maybe trying to provoke the Iranians over their role in Iraq to justify that action.

We used extracts from these two interviews to show there is a debate in Washington over its policy towards Iran, and then we asked the respected analyst, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, whether the US is preparing an attack. He said on balance he didn't think so because the groups advocating such action do not have enough influence on the White House. He also said Iran has a limited presence inside Iraq and that the US knows Tehran is still years away from developing nuclear weapons.

What we try our best to avoid when doing this kind of story is reporting claims we can not substantiate, whether made by journalists, officials or politicians, about what the US and Iran are up to without first assessing their credibility and then making clear that they are just that - claims - and explaining the political context within which the claims are being made so that listeners can make up their own minds.


  • 1.
  • At 07:17 PM on 02 Feb 2007,
  • anon wrote:

"respected analyst, Anthony Cordesman"

Respected by who?

  • 2.
  • At 07:27 PM on 02 Feb 2007,
  • Philip wrote:


I don't have any easy answers on this.

I only know from having read the books 'Shooting History' by Jon Snow and 'The Wars against Saddam' by John Simpson that there appears no better alternative than to have non-embedded reporters on the ground to find out the facts.

But as John Simpson can no doubt testify, this doesn't come without its own substantial risks. I can only hope that if journalists are willing to take those risks that you will support them and run the stories that they file.

Of course, it is easy for me to say this - I don't have to sanction the decision to send people into harms' way and be accountable if they don't come back. But I hope the BBC does feel that this sort of journalism is important.

'Embeds' do report the news as they see it - but it is what they cannot see which is often the story. And that vacuum will soon be filled by the disinformation and rumour you speak of, regardless of where it is sourced.

While Iran seems to be the villain of the piece, one cannot help feeling that by racheting the pressure on Iran, America is once again going into an unnecessary confrontation without exploring all the avenues of peaceful negotiation first. The Iraq adventure has already come to haunt the Bush administration and hopefully Iran will not be the same scenario with young American soldiers coming back in body bags. Congress needs to give some wise counsel to the President for he has lost his way and needs to admit it without making further costly ones.

  • 4.
  • At 01:09 AM on 03 Feb 2007,
  • Mark wrote:

Well you have already stepped on at least one land mine. In its typical spin reporting BBC included its own wishful thinking along with the facts of the news. BBC suggested that recent warnings to Iran coming from Washington are just saber rattling. What an unfounded and absurd notion. Here are the facts making the reality of the threat and growing threat Iran presents to the US unmistakable. Iran's government has declared that the world would be better off without America and Israel has no right to exist. It even just hosted a holocaust is a hoax meeting in Iran. It supports the terrorist organizations Hezbollah and Hamas in their efforts to destroy Israel and capture Lebanon. It has shipped huge quantities of weapons including tens of thousands of rockets to Hebollah, about 5000 of which were launched indiscriminately at Israeli civilians in last summer's war (where was the talk of international law and war crimes then?), it is fomenting and abetting the insurgency in Iraq by providing weapons and training to Shia insurgents, and it is believed to be developing atomic weapons in its deliberately clandestine nuclear program. In the threat of such weapons and the possible intent to disseminate them or even use them, the likely target cannot afford to take any risks by waiting to see if it is real and what the intent actually is. The Bush administration made a disasterous mistake allowing North Korea to go as far as it did. Iran's threat to the US, the Sunni dominated gulf states which provide much of the world's oil, and Israel is even greater than North Korea's threat. If the US fails to act pre-emptively, Israel will have no choice. It would be far better if the US does it. It has the option of using conventional weapons which if targeted judiciously would eliminate the threat without inadvertently setting the oil fields ablaze and killing a very large number of civilians. Israel's only option should it be forced to act is to use nuclear weapons. If it does and the oil goes up, you can tear up all of the prognostications about global warming, the process will accelerate a hundred fold.

Verifying claims is certainly important. What is equally important is giving the chance to readers or listerners to make up their own minds based on the latest available information. Developing the critical sense is an art and jumping to wild conclusions should not be encouraged especially when the sources of the information are still circumspect.

  • 6.
  • At 05:31 PM on 03 Feb 2007,
  • nehad ismail wrote:

For over 30 years Iran has been seeking a pivotal role in the Middle East. The invasion of Iraq, the Israel Hizbulla war and the election of Hamas have opened the gate for Iran to meddle into the affairs of Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza. It is clear that Iran is using the three spheres of influence as a lever in its cat and mouse game with the USA over its nuclear programme.
In Iraq, Iran would like to see a Shi'ite client state. In Lebanon it seeks a bigger role for Hizbullah and the Shi'ite coummunity. In Gaza which is predominatly Sunni, it uses money and ideology to control Hamas.

Iran is playing a shrewd game and is using its power in Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza most effectively and in other words, it is saying "You cannot ignore me, you must deal and negotiate with me if you want stablility and security in the three areas mentioned above".

  • 7.
  • At 01:16 PM on 04 Feb 2007,
  • PeeVeeAh wrote:

Where 'Hawks' and 'Doves' are at work, one need not look too far for the expectant Vultures!

Plenty of pickings to be had whenever the juxtaposed utter their assertions and make their posturings imstamtly available to all viewers, everywhere across the globe!

Warmongering has gone on since before records were made. Now, contentious records are being made before the war would happen! Everyone can observe the manouverings - '24/7' - but what is gained from knowing all the shenanigans - as they happen? Isn't it possible that outcomes are being changed, not by due political process, but by media-bites sourced at every pose of the protagonists?

Doing this does not increase the knowledge base of the lay-viewer such that they can hold a balanced view of the ideological conflict. 'Breaking news' is the bane of reasoned judgement of any longterm event. It's 'snapshot' by definition and anything extrapolated from the instant is - at best, sensational and mind-altering - and at worst, the cause of knee-jerk reaction in the viewer. Thankfully, the viewer has little executive power in the 'corrective action' process, but that's all the more reason not to show such insoluble stuff as-it-happens, isn't it?

  • 8.
  • At 12:10 AM on 05 Feb 2007,
  • zankaon wrote:

Alternatives to Israel Iranian discord

Admit Israel and Iran as permanent members to the Security Council. Have Israel sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and allow tight inspections. It would seem reasonable then for Iran to additionally comply with such latter measure. Extend a hugh economic package to both Israel and Iran; so large that no Iranian nor Israeli could turn it down. Use the Egyptian Israel accord as a model in part. Include water as an instrument of foreign policy. Water from the Great Lakes for Israel and Gaza; and water from Siberian Arctic rivers to Iran and the Persian Gulf countries. Global warming allows access to such Arctic inflowing rivers by Russia. Also all nuclear technology and weapons, as well as all civilian wastes, would be deposited in a South Pacific site at 15000 feet depth. Hence Israel and Iran would serve as an example, leading the Northern Hemisphere in disposing of all nuclear breeder cores, weapons, and civilian wastes in such site. So do we hear the Middle East singing, or have the stones turned silent?

  • 9.
  • At 02:58 PM on 05 Feb 2007,
  • Sam wrote:

zankaon #2

What makes you think the E.U could have anywhere near enough money to convince Israel of doing anything? Any amount would fade in to insignificance compared to the money pumped in to it by the U.S every day.

Israel has no interest in peace with Iran in fact its itching to attack it, simply becuase Iran is the only country left in the middle east other than Israel with any real power.

I personally would like to see Irael admit tight inspections in order to encourage Iran to do the same, but it won't and no U.N resolution will ever be made against them as a result becuase america would never let it happen.

To me i don't think Iran is a problem they just want to get on with things. Its Israel and the USA who have there guns pointing at people all the time making threats.

The only solution to wider peace in the middle east is NOT a 2 state solution with Palestine simply becuase they already have it and it makes no difference.

The only solution is to end the occupation of Palestine by the Israelies. The way we do that is to make it so all so called 'Palestinians' become israelie. Let them live in Israel pay Israelie taxes vote in Israelie elections and be represented in Israelie government.

You do that and you will have peace, at the same time Iran will be off the defensive.

But lets be clear it is NOT Iran or Syria who are throwing there weight around bullying people here its the USA and Israel.

  • 10.
  • At 11:24 PM on 05 Feb 2007,
  • |333173|3|_||3 wrote:

zankaon: That will never work, since if Iran agrees to something, Israel will almost certainly object, and vice versa. Thus nothing will get passed, unless it is so carefully worded that it menas nothing.

  • 11.
  • At 08:56 AM on 06 Feb 2007,
  • Muhammad Umar wrote:

No Doublt Iran is supplying waepons to Shia militia in Iraq & Afghanist for its influence on Middle East.

Also getting hepl from North Korea to prepare the nuclear test it may happen in March.

Regarding Afghanistan issue both USA & Iran are hpling the Northern Alliance their mojority is consist on Shia militia who totally against the Taliban(Sunni) here both enemy become ally and never give any statement against each other.

On the other hand , US are feeding disinformation to journalists want to getting a way to attack on Iran for safaty of Isreal servival.I think,US is not in the position due to Afghanist & Iraq tentions to attack on Iran & destroy its nuclear programme.

  • 12.
  • At 10:24 AM on 06 Feb 2007,
  • GUY FOX wrote:

I would not trust anything that the Bush adminstration says in regard to Iran. Putting faith in the promulgations of liars and thieves begets only rotten fruit and makes you look like ewe... playing the role of fool.

  • 13.
  • At 12:44 PM on 06 Feb 2007,
  • Dottie wrote:

I think it is important that journalists substantiate their stories. That’s the difference between the information/opinion we read by the public / contributors on these blogs and the stories by the journalists. We trust that the journalists are in the action and reporting the action as they see it. Journalists are also valuable for their connections to the main players in the action as Alistair describes in his comments. I also see value in the comments from the public/contributors because a lot of them have gathered their information from lots of other published sources and have formed pretty good opinions. Then of course there are the citizen journalists on the ground all over the world. I often wonder how helpful citizen journalists are in the greater scheme of news reporting – especially in stories like this one.

  • 14.
  • At 03:37 PM on 06 Feb 2007,
  • Steve E wrote:

"Since 2003, coalition forces have recovered approximately 500 weapons munitions which contain degraded mustard or sarin nerve agent. Despite many efforts to locate and destroy Iraq's pre-Gulf War chemical munitions, filled and unfilled pre-Gulf War chemical munitions are assessed to still exist."

US Senator Rick Santorum, June 2006.

“As we know, no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq.”

Alistair Burnett, February 2007.

  • 15.
  • At 05:46 PM on 06 Feb 2007,
  • Bruan wrote:

Mark - That is NO reason to kill innocent people. Yes, there are people just like you and me living in Iran. Why should they have to die because of what their government's position is?

Also - "wipe Israel off the map" does NOT mean destroy them. It means that Israel should be renamed Palestine, as it was before.

It's sad that you still have faith in the propaganda that comes from the white house.

  • 16.
  • At 06:05 PM on 06 Feb 2007,
  • Peter wrote:

In response to Guy, so you don't trust America, I take it you also don't trust Iran?.
every argument that you failed to put forward as to why we should not trust America is more than matched by why we should not trust Iran.

  • 17.
  • At 09:58 PM on 06 Feb 2007,
  • alfin wrote:

the british and the americans are responsible for most of the world's ills. so please lay off.

  • 18.
  • At 03:32 AM on 08 Feb 2007,
  • GUY FOX wrote:

Learn from the folly in Iraq-nam. Frankly... I'd not trust anything that comes from the Amerikan $ide of the fence. Amerikans are violent bullies, meateaters consuming the world's resources no matter the consequences. Behold! See what they doodoo. Actions speak louder than words.

Reflect for a moment. Put yourself in Iran's shoes. Think. If somebody set fire to your neighbors' houses, and then started digging holes in your backyard, would it not give you reason to be alarmed? Eh?

This is how the leaders in Iran feel. So they talk tough and loud... and they're presently doing whatever they have to do to prepare themselves from aggressors who may or may not attack them.

If the U.$. and/or Israel attacks (bombs) Iran, expect a world wide economic depression and $250.00+ a barrel for crude oil. And do you think that China, a nation that buys a lot of crude and gas from the Iranians, are going to just stand around? And the Russians? Do you think they'll not also be both alarmed and angry if Iran, one of their biggest trading partners, was being militarily attacked by the Amerikans?

This is the fruit we sow. It is fruit born from ignorance and fear in lieu of dialogue, understanding and negotiation. The world must unite against the Amerikan menace as it once did against Hitler and the Nazi menace.

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