The news that Nick Ferrari, a presenter of Iranian state-owned English-language news channel Press TV, has quit his job at Press TV's London studios in protest of the crushing of demonstrators there, has brought into focus the issue of western journalists working in the state media of oppressive regimes. Whilst it might be natural to simply label all such journalists either has-beens or willing tools of their employers, the fact that a journalist of the calibre of Andrew Gilligan (Telegraph 'London Editor' and he of David Kelly-affair fame) works for them was enough to give me pause.
Iran is just one of the oppressive or authoritarian regimes to launch its own English-language news media in the past few years in an effort to get its own version of the story across. Chinese Central Television (CCTV) launched its English-language station CCTV 9 back in 2000, including news programs fronted by western journalists, one of whom went on to front a program at Press TV. The Russia Information Agency (RIA) launched its Russia Today news channel in 2005, which came to particular prominence during last year's South Ossetia war when one of its western correspondents also quit over skewed reporting. Another channel which might be included in this is the Al-Jazeera news channel, subsidised as it is by the Emir of Qatar, although this channel has gained much more of a reputation for fair reporting than any of the other channels mentioned here.
The question is, why would anyone who is aware of the nature of the governments behind such channels wish to work for them? Firstly, some would seem to have an almost child-like ignorance of the potentially compromising position that their work puts them in. When asked in an interview with the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post why he would work for CCTV, Eddie Maher, a New Zealand-born who achieved a degree of fame whilst working as an weatherman in Australia, replied that he saw his job as:
"not trying to read into the news, not thinking about what is behind the content. Politically sensitive news, like any other news, has to be read clearly. That is my bottom line. Because I'm in China, some news may be regarded as politically sensitive or whatever, but that doesn't affect my interpretation of it to the audience."
Others are clearly ideological fellow-travellers of their employers. For example, self-styled 'anti-zionist' and host of Press TV's "The Real Deal" George Galloway presumably sees nothing wrong with Press TV's hosting of articles denying the Holocaust on its website. However, there are those who seem to genuinely believe that they can make a difference through working for what are little better than government mouthpieces. Richard Burger, long-time China-blogger and, until recently, foreign editor and columnist for the Chinese state-owned Global Times said in a recent interview that:
"My own conclusion is that they sincerely want to present the foreigners and English-speaking Chinese here and abroad with a different type of newspaper experience. Sure, they toe the party line on certain topics, but even on the most sensitive of these, they seem willing to present alternative viewpoints, even if they are directly and outspokenly critical of the government.
I think this will be their signature, a panoramic view of the news with lots of analysis and discussion. As I said, it does tow the party line, but they seem genuine about allowing
serious dissent and disagreement "
Indeed, Global Times has made some relatively liberal moves, such as an editorial which, whilst not actually describing the events, dealt with the impact of the Tiananmen square massacre in a sympathetic way. All the same, the taint of having worked for the state media of an oppressive regime and rendering overt assistance to government policy, as compared to the tacit assistance rendered through working for such a government in education or industry will be difficult to avoid.