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TV from Tehran

Richard Porter | 11:58 UK time, Thursday, 7 December 2006

We learnt some very interesting things about life in Iran yesterday - not just because of what's been happening on air, but also behind the scenes.

BBC World logoWe've been hearing from a group of eloquent, passionate and idealistic students in Tehran as part of School Day 24, the centrepiece of our season of programmes called Generation Next.

The idea was been to link up students in Iran with students in the UK and the USA, and get them to ask each other questions and share their views about each other's cultures.

We've had some fascinating discussions about the nuclear issue, the conflict in Iraq, freedom of the media, even the wearing of headscarves. One young Iranian said, "I have an experience I want to share with everyone in the world". And because of the BBC she can, since she is being broadcast across the UK and to more than 200 countries and territories around the globe.

All of this supports one of our key objectives on BBC World, which is to connect and engage audiences by facilitating an informed and intelligent dialogue - we call it a global conversation. And that's happening with School Day 24, where dozens of schools all around the world are connecting with each other - students in Jerusalem talking to students in the West Bank, Russians talking to Georgians, Indians to Pakistanis - all of these, and many more, broadcast by our radio colleagues at BBC World Service in addition to our TV broadcasts.

Students in Iran watch the broadcastBut as I said, our experiences off air have also taught us something about life in Iran. The university we've been filming at, the Islamic Azad University, could not have been more helpful. Our correspondent Frances Harrison and her dedicated team have spent many weeks negotiating the arrangements and the university has pulled out all the stops to help us. And when it came to the filming, no one was monitoring the students or telling them what to say - they were left on their own to say what they think.

Contrast that with the attitude of Iranian TV, which agreed to let us rent one of their satellite dishes so we could broadcast all of our links live from the university. Then, as it came closer to the big day, it became clear that someone, somewhere had cold feet. Suddenly the dish we'd been promised was needed elsewhere and, eventually, we finally realised we weren't going to get it. Instead, Frances would have to record all her interviews and feed them over to us from her office.

It meant we couldn't get live interaction between the students - and maybe that's what somebody wanted to stop from happening. But the university was clearly pretty cross about the whole thing and was determined to let us go ahead with the interviews.

So perhaps that tells you something about the nature of Iranian society. That some people are more relaxed about engaging with the West than others. That perhaps they are suspicious of the BBC and the Western media - or worried about what their own students will say. Perhaps there's just too much red-tape. But the students know where they stand - they want to keep the conversation going and have been busy signing themselves up for various chat sites to enable them to do so.

Even without the live link-up, it still feels like we've started something...


  • 1.
  • At 02:00 PM on 07 Dec 2006,
  • Mark wrote:

The problem for the totalitarian state, whether it is a Communist dictatorship or a Shiite theocracy is that it must indoctrinate those at the highest levels of education most effectively because they will inevitably have access to potentially subversive material which challenges the power, even the right to power of the state itself. This is why the government imposed censorship at the last minute, it had to be certain discussions did not get dangerously beyond its control.

From what I read of the discussion, Iran's government has little to worry about in this area. When the conversation is focused on what people are allowed to wear, what they do for amusement, and what little political discussion ensues parrots the government's line about anti Iranian propaganda by the American government and media, there is no likelihood that the real burning issues will arise and become the topic of a heated balanced debate, the government has done its job of indoctrination very well.

Was it out of ignorance or fear on the part of the Iranian students and was it out of politeness or political correctness on the part of those in Great Britain and the US that the subject of the Iranian President's call for the destruction of America and Israel, the widespread belief that Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons, and the support Iran's government gives to organizations the US and EU call terrorists such as Hamas and Hezbollah never came up for debate? There was no discussion of the implications these matters have for the future security of Iranians or whether or not they will even have a future if tensions escalate to war. An exchange of ideas which avoids the topics which should be of greatest concern to both sides is not worth the time and effort it took to conduct it. BBC, you reduced a real opportunity to more mere fluff. The Mullahs can sleep peacefully in their beds at night, secure in the knowledge that their subjects will not engage in dangerously independent thought leading to heretical conclusions. And BBC can also rest assured that it will be welcome back in Teheran to engage in conducting more pointless yammering under the pretense of meaningful dialogue.

  • 2.
  • At 03:51 PM on 07 Dec 2006,
  • J Westerman wrote:

While agreeing generally with Mark (1. 07 Dec 2006) it must be said that the truth has an awful habit of coming out one way or another. The students will be smart enough to deduce the extent to which discussion is being limited.
Congratulations Beeb! Don't let go without the students being aware that you have been forced to do so.

  • 3.
  • At 05:44 PM on 07 Dec 2006,
  • PeeVeeAh wrote:

Messager 1 is doubtless correct in his assertion that the 'bottom line' issues being 'chaperoned' in some media theatres are not exactly cutting-edge.....But!

Isn't it a start to some kind of citizen-to-citizen dialogue? Doubtless, the plug would be pulled - pdq - iftotalitarian regimes are put directly under the spotlight. They only survive in the darkness of global ignorance, surely.

Shall we leave the moving of mountains to those divine entities that reckon to do that - and just get on with building bridges?

Anything that gives people insight into the lives of others - who might be assumed a personal threat - must lessen the tension - at the grass roots level. Now THAT is something that might not be welcomed by EITHER side - in the long grass! - of course!......

  • 4.
  • At 10:59 PM on 07 Dec 2006,
  • M wrote:

off you go again Mark, why do you think the government represents the
view of the people? Given the opportunity to find out what people
think you reject it.

Perhaps the government view, and your view will turn out to be fluff.
How many young Iranians are calling for destruction of countries, support
nuclear weapons production, and Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist activities?

It is so arrogant for you to think you are somehow setting the political agenda.

  • 5.
  • At 11:21 PM on 07 Dec 2006,
  • Sam, Wolverhampton wrote:

Like a growing number of entries on the editors blog, this one
falls into the category of "wow, weren't we fantastic." It sounds like this editor is trying to put some spin on a big money project - possibly for the attention of his superiors. Instead, what he should be doing is enlightening and engaging us licence fee payers.
Please only post on this blog when you have something meaningful to say. Don't tell me how good your work was. Thank you.

It's surely naive to pretend that these students in Iran were 'allowed to speak freely'.

Were they asked what they thought of their government? Were they honestly allowed to say what they thought of living under strict Islamic law?

It seems very unlikely - under a repressive regime, people grow up knowing what they are and are not allowed to say.

Propagating the idea that this was a free exchange of ideas does a great disservice to viewers.

  • 7.
  • At 01:52 PM on 08 Dec 2006,
  • Mark wrote:

David Fuller #6, it is understandable that Iranian university students would not speak out publicly against their government by engaging in views which are controversial or heretical in their society. These are people on the verge of complete independence and autonomy in conducting their lives as young adults. They are also among the best educated people in the country and assuming they have seen through the sham of their elections and know that they live in a totalitarian theocracy, they understand both the written and unwritten rules for what is permitted and not permitted for them to say and the possible consequences for breaking those rules. But what is the excuse for students in Britain and the US not approaching these issues, they are under no such restrictions? Why were they content to talk mostly about public dress codes and what amusements Iranians divert themselves with in their spare time? The answer is that it is evidence of their incomplete education and their lack of judgement about what is and is not important in the world yet.

M #4, I didn't set or try to set the political agenda, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did. Considering the "unsettling" nature of that agenda and the gravity of its possible consequences for Iran and the whole world, you'd think that would be the main topic of discussion among highly eductated university students in Iran and those who consider themselves mature, responsible, and educated in the US and Britain, not the topics they chose to focus on. You ask "how many young Iranians are calling for the destruction of countries, support nuclear weapons production, and Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist activities?" I don't know, I had hoped that would be the kind of issues we'd get some insight into in the dialogue BBC arranged. Unfortunately, the topics which were discussed are of no real consequence. That's why I described them as fluff. That's what was satisfactory to the Iranian students, the western youths, and the moderators. That's why I characterized it as yammering and not meaningful dialogue.

  • 8.
  • At 04:42 PM on 08 Dec 2006,
  • Bryan wrote:

So perhaps that tells you something about the nature of Iranian society.

Afraid not, Mr. Porter. The BBC has little or no interest in telling us what is really going on in Iranian society, because it cannot or will not criticize the brutal Islamic regime. So it pretends to tell us by portraying the regime in the mildest possible terms as simply being a little too eager to impose censorship and Iranian students as concerned simply with trivia like dress and parties.

Yet again, the BBC lets us down and we have to go to the blogs and other sources to find out about the oppression, the religious fundamentalism, the execution of teenagers for having sex, the seething anger of university students and their desire to bring down the regime.

For all the "information" the BBC gives us about Iran, it might as well be talking about a different country.

After the reading of your School Day 24 episode from Teheran I came to the conclusion that we in the West know more about Iran and its current situation and politics than those students that spoke. Unlike in Iran we have free media that are not afraid of commenting and presenting uncomfortable facts. It is interesting that the Iranian students complained about alleged bad picture of Iran the western media present. Either they are not informed about what their president and their government do and plan to do, or they know it very well but regard it as something justified (wiping out Israel of the map for example).

I dont think the latter is correct because it would mean Iranians are not peaceful people. I think it is because of Iranian censorship and all religious restrictions where free thought is fought. Events like your School Day 24 can help and can bring some information to these students helping them to contradict official Iranian propaganda. But it is also BBC's role to examine more challenging issues like political and religious ones. For example how Iranians treat gays, apostates, people who committed adultery, how muslim can marry a non-muslim woman but non-muslim is not allowed to marry muslim woman. I would expect more challenging debate if your project is to be serious.

  • 10.
  • At 09:31 PM on 08 Dec 2006,
  • cairo wrote:

These posts sound very arrogant and ignorant at the same time.

You cannot phatom the idea that maybe, just maybe, Iranians really love and support all the ideals presented by the Government and leader. You are a disgrace.

Not everyone likes Levis Jeans and not everyone likes Mcdonalds. Its not that they have been brainwashed. They JUST don't like it. Why is it so hard to contemplate? Are you people THAT NUTS?

If somewhere on this planet, there is a people who live in their own ideal society-shouldn't they be allowed to pursue their dreams without your ideals forcefed to them? Get Lost.

Regardless of how delusional you may think they are, you prove their most extreme views by your attitudes here.

  • 11.
  • At 09:45 AM on 09 Dec 2006,
  • Ragnar wrote:

Aha. Here we have the same old hoary chestnut. It does not matter WHAT the subject, the BBC allways, as in NEVER fails, to overburden it's listener, viewer, with "The view from the Middle East".
If the purpose of 9/11 and 7/7 was to get attention, the BBC have let them win ADMIRABLY.
Who pays the licence fee the people in the U.K, or Aljizzeera?

  • 12.
  • At 02:35 PM on 09 Dec 2006,
  • canadianmoose wrote:

As long as there is a islamic ideologic goverment in place,there will be no real freedom for the iranian people,afterall,any religion,which kills its citizens for adultery,namely women,is a brutal entity indeed. So who is brave enough among them to open up their mouths and say what they really believe or think. As long as the goverment rules,with religion as a beating stick,there will be no freedom for anyone. Im sure there are many backroom chats among the youths,if which known,they would be killed for,but as long as the cycle of religious fear premeates the social climate,they will remain the slaves of the iranian goverment,and its view of whats good for the people,bar none

  • 13.
  • At 07:01 PM on 09 Dec 2006,
  • jack maclean wrote:

From your report it seems that things might not be too bad in Iran after all. It must be all the bad press. It's good to see that the BBC is setting a good example here.
If some officials can be a bit more relaxed,cut the red tape,and really get behind the internet,the rest of world wil see that Iran really is a swell place to live in.

  • 14.
  • At 04:03 PM on 10 Dec 2006,
  • Sikander Javed wrote:

I think your "Generation Next" program was great. It really cleared out the misconceptions of both the camps. I think generally internet is playing a very important part in life bringing close the youth. They are no more like their parents.

  • 15.
  • At 06:36 PM on 12 Dec 2006,
  • Kara wrote:

The young people might have been discussing clothes rather than hot-button issues because that's what young people usually talk to each other about! How often do you see teenagers having philosophical conversations or discussing politics? Maybe Iranian youth are self-censoring or maybe they're just, well, youth.

  • 16.
  • At 10:01 PM on 12 Dec 2006,
  • ali wrote:

First I have to say that I’m an Iranian student studying in Armenia.

Cairo #10 I want to tell you that what you think is not right because I don’t know if you have been to Iran or not what you say contradicts to what you see & hear from Iranian people, what Iranian people say in front of camera is different from what they really believe, some part of it is because of Iranian people are afraid of what they should say and the other part is because of the censorship in Iran & this increased when the president Ahmadinejad was elected. So what you say is not the Iranians belief at least it is not the idea of the most Iranians.
Marcus #9 I admit that the censorship in Iran is very high people in Iran do not know what is going on but they have access to internet they have satellites the problem with Iranians is that they don’t care about what is going on but I want to ask you in western countries how many percentage of people know that in Iran we have cars? (& like this question) When those students say bad picture of Iran they mean this. And about rest of your notes I should say there is no mistake in our religion the way that Muslims behave makes this misunderstanding in you, consider Malaysia it is a Muslim country so we don’t have these problems there?

At last I want to thank BBC for giving this opportunity to Iranian student to express their ideas and hope that this kind of programmes continues in the future with better topics.

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