The Reinvention of Press TV

How Iran can re-assert itself on the world stage.

Last week it was announced that various sanctions and embargoes have been lifted in the wake of Iran’s nuclear deal with the West being adhered to, and although the US has since added other, less drastic sanctions to stop Iran using ballistic missiles, it represents a huge leap forward for the country. However, the country struggles to make any impact abroad, and in the coverage of the deal, one thing was missing: Iran’s voice. Instead, what we got was a neutral voice from the UN, and a cautious voice from the US. The coverage since has continued in this vein, with only limited airtime going to Iran, and a related story discussing the feud between Iran and Saudi Arabia has also relied heavily on the Saudi perspective, at the expense of the Iranian point of view. With the country on the ascent as a global power, what can it do to help boost its image abroad?

Iran has been staging a PR battle in recent months to try and take advantage of this wave of positive coverage since the deal was initially announced last year. Numerous stories about the potential for Iran have appeared, and French network France 24 even went to the country to do a two-part report on music, art and culture within Tehran. Even with the recent conflict with Saudi Arabia, a lot of people in the West are looking at Iran with new eyes, and a recent BBC report argued that the recent dispute could actually put Saudi Arabia’s special relationship with the West in jeopardy after recent criticism regarding civil rights in the country. However, the recent fracas with Saudi Arabia raised a key issue regarding Iran’s limited soft power on the world, and one that was highlighted by Al Jazeera English’s media review show The Listening Post; the country doesn’t have any strong media outlets in the Anglosphere to put across its point of view.

Interestingly, Iran does already have an English news channel, Press TV, which was launched in 2008 amid a rush of international news channels, keen to show a different view to the hegemonic American and British media networks which had existed for decades and had largely influenced global thinking. However, in Press TV’s case, the channel struggled to find much of an audience for various reasons, the main ones being the success of rival Russian station Russia Today (later RT) to occupy the space of alternative opposition, and the sketchy stories aired on the channel, later leading to a ban from the British regulator Ofcom and the channel being pulled from the SES Astra satellite after the German regulator BLM claimed the station had no license to broadcast. Hostility towards the channel also helped to limit availability; Wikileaks published a diplomatic cable from February 2010 that noted the British government were “exploring ways to limit the operations of the IRIB’s Press TV service”. So how did the channel end up this way?

Where are we now?

In order to understand the channel’s initial approach, you need to look at where the country was under its former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The relationship between Iran and the West had always been rather cold since the otherthrow of the Shah in 1979 and the Iranian hostage crisis, but the election of Ahmadinejad came at a time where the US feared the implications of Iran gaining nuclear capabilities, and Iran was unwilling to negotiate, instead seeing the West as a power controlled and allied with Iran’s enemies, Saudi Arabia and Israel. The global news environment also played a role; With the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera English launching, many other networks were keen to follow suit. Russia and France developed their own respective channels shortly after, and China and Japan changed the formats of their existing networks to suit the new global news-environment.

Out of these new platforms, only Russia and Iran were truly oppositional to Western governments, so it was natural that they tried to occupy the voices as the opposition. Russia spent millions on their new network, expanding bureaus in Europe and the US and later launching Spanish and Arabic sister-channels to serve the media-markets in those areas. Iran also made efforts to expand and opened up a studio in London to house some shows and to allow the network to report from the country, but the Ofcom ban limited how effective the bureau could be, and so the channel missed the chance to establish itself as a dissenting voice.

Recent developments have changed relations with Iran massively. This has largely been in part due to the election of Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s President since 2013 who has been seen by many as a reformer keen to thaw relations with the rest of the world and reintroduce Iran to the world stage. Many Iranians celebrated the deal, and with millions of dollars in funding and investment set to enter the country, you can hardly blame them for their new-found optimism.

In recent years, it has become clear that in order to exert influence on today’s modern interconnected world, you need to show hard and soft power. Qatar has done this to great effect, using Al Jazeera to raise the profile of the country overseas and help increase Qatari investment both in and out of the country. Russia has used their channel to ally with the alternative media, and show the Russian point of view, a perspective that was essential for the country after the Ukrainian region of Crimea was annexed by Russia in 2014. With the ending of sanctions in Iran, and the recent change of mood in the West towards Saudi Arabia, there is a real opportunity to gain influence and power on the global stage, but in order to do this, Press TV needs to change drastically.

Time to start again

Given the current situation, any changes would need to be fairly big. The name of Press TV has been tainted irrevocably, if only for the interview in 2011 with Maziar Bahari that was allegedly conducted under duress, and although many do not know the name, for those that do, it is not considered a serious brand in the international news arena, and many feel it is simply a propaganda outlet, rather than a true news channel. That is why the best option would be a clean break; a complete reset of the channel. It would not be easy, or cheap, but without this step, any reform in the station would forever be linked to its murky past. Although the same could be said for the new channel, a different brand could aim to separate itself from the former network and start anew.

One of the biggest assets that state broadcaster IRIB is not currently using is the name of its Farsi news channel, IRINN. Press TV by its nature is a rather generic name, and doesn’t indicate any allegiance or location. Whilst this may have been a selling point when relations with Iran and the Anglosphere were sour, now that relations are beginning to grow again such a neutral name can be unclear and does not do Iran any favours. IRINN, however, uses the Farsi brand that already exists and builds upon it further. Some name suggestions could be IRINN World or IRINN English. Out of those two, the latter may be the preferred one; in the run up to the launch of Al Jazeera English, the channel was originally called Al Jazeera International, but was changed after some of the backers argued the Arabic channel already reached a global audience, and the same logic could apply here.

However, a simple lick of paint and a name change will not fully solve the issues mentioned earlier in the article. A new channel needs a new outlook, and one that is more in tune with the Iranian public and the new direction that the government of Iran is keen to take. In order to do this, it needs to abandon the approach it has taken previously, and stop trying to compete with RT as the voice of critical opposition of the status quo. That isn’t to say that they should remove all opinion, or simply tow a pro-Western line; that isn’t representative of many countries in the region, least of all Iran, and although relations are warming there are still points of respectful disagreement which should still be represented.

However, voices like ex-MP George Galloway are representative of the old approach that Press TV took, an approach that is similar to what Russian channel RT still does: give a voice to people who are on the more extreme ends of dialogue in their own countries and disregard the Iranian perspective entirely in some cases. Of course, other voices should be welcomed, and diversity is something that has worked well for Al Jazeera English, a channel that prides itself on having a variety of people from different backgrounds, but the key is to keep the Iranian perspective central to the channel. There are examples of the change in approach already on the channel seeping through, but as long as it is attached to the old name, it will be hard for the channel to shake off the stigma of previous issues and be taken seriously.

It would not be natural to have the new channel be completely impartial, either; having examined news channels previously, and through working for Al Jazeera English previously, I’ve found there is no way to present news without bias, as the geographical and political climates in the place in question can make their way in, even if only subliminally. A better option is to go to different sources and judge for youself — something which is incredibly easy in today’s interconnected world, and with Facebook and Twitter becoming increasingly opinionated, challenging your views can be as simple as scrolling through your newsfeed. The Iranian point of view mentioned earlier is key to this, and should act as a centerpiece of any new strategy, especially as media outlets in the US and in certain states across the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia and Israel are hostile and wish to portray Iran as a dangerous state intent on harming the West.

A revamped channel could act as a clean slate for a new Iran, keen to make progress on the world stage. It would also make the chances of gaining carriage in other continents more likely, and could even get the channel an Ofcom license, as long as some autonomy was given to the London bureau to make its own decisions on stories, much as other channels do today with their bureaus. If IRIB plays it right, Iran could use this opportunity to counter various narratives: the perception of Islam as exclusively Sunni, and often Wahhabi, and those in the West who still believe that Iran is incredibly dangerous, thanks to countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia. The future is already looking better for Iran with investment flooding in. It just has to be mindful that it doesn’t lose this opportunity to stand up and make its voice heard.