Asking the Persians to roll out the red carpet

Nigel Chapman, director of the BBC World Service, travelled this month to the annual Asian Broadcasting Union Conference in Tehran. It was a rare chance to meet key advisers in the Iranian government and discuss the arrival in 2008 of the BBC's Persian TV service
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In a small office in downtown Tehran we spot an interesting piece of paper on the desk of a member of the team that supports President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's advisers on media and the press. It is a print-out of the latest front page of the BBC Persian website; the news about Pakistan's state of emergency takes centre stage. The team reads the site every day, says the official, and on occasion, copies of stories go directly to the President. Yet in a block of flats a stone's throw away it would be impossible to access the site, just as it was in our hotel. That's because the special committee that oversees access to electronic media in Iran ordered its blocking in January 2006.

It is similar with access to internationally produced satellite television in Iran. Officially, it is illegal to own a dish, but a senior official from the state broadcaster tells us that he believes that about 20-30 per cent of weekly television viewing in Iran is of channels produced abroad, including the news programmes from VOA (Voice of America). This in a country that has had no formal diplomatic relations with the US for 25 years and where posters calling for the death of America adorn the sides of high-rise flats.

It is clear that Iran is a country comfortable living with ambiguity. It is also a place where the levers of power are not transparent. Whole layers of government are unelected and support a very powerful theocratic tier that does not have to suffer the hurly-burly of public scrutiny and potential loss of office. From the perspective of a Western media company, it makes dealing with the Iranian authorities a fascinating challenge.

Iranians are full of stories about the BBC. Some go back to our alleged involvement in the overthrow of the democratically elected government in 1953. Others involve the belief that we helped Ayatollah Khomeini return to Iran and seize power in 1979. Powers are ascribed to us that, if true, would qualify us as Masters of the Universe rather that an important international broadcaster. But these myths and legends matter: many Iranians believe that there is an ulterior motive to our plans to launch a television service for Iran, and we have to work hard to convince them that it will comply with the same editorial values as the rest of the BBC and not become a mouthpiece for disgruntled Iranians abroad, as has been the case with other so-called news channels viewable in Iran.

For the Iranian authorities, the BBC's new Persian TV service represents a dilemma. It will undoubtedly be watched in Iran and has the power to be influential. So how far do they want to co-operate with it, and make access to Iran's rich variety of stories possible?

BBC access to Iran is currently very limited. The BBC Tehran bureau has one full-time correspondent, Jon Leyne, and a small support team of producers and fixers. It is not easy to move around and do stories, especially if that means leaving the vicinity of the office. There is no correspondent from the Persian radio and new media team, and audibility on shortwave is not easy. Iran is a television-dominated world where radio comes a distinctive second best. It is a young country, with a high proportion of the 70-million-strong population under 30; there is widespread concern about their future.

With such little opportunity for the BBC to operate in Iran, officials are inevitably frustrated that the portrayal of Iran in Western media is so limited. They do not deny the importance of the nuclear issue or Iran's role in the wider region, but yearn for acknowledgement of their history, culture and contribution to science and medicine. There is a strong sense of national pride. We argue that we need visas, less interference and no discrimination between reporters who want to file in English or Persian. The conversation eddies back and forth, punctuated by some good Iranian jokes, sweet tea and even sweeter dates.

At the Foreign Ministry, we return to the subject of President Ahmadinejad and the possibility of a BBC interview with him. We learn that there are 80 bids on the table from international broadcasters, not all (I am pleased to say) from the BBC. I try to find out precisely where the BBC bid is on the list, but to no avail. What is clear is that the Iranian authorities have some definite views about the framework for such a bid: the interview must be done by a major BBC figure; ideally, it would be live and uncut.

When the president arrives at the conference he is swept along like a boxer. The lights are dimmed and applause from delegates reverberates in our ears. His speech is preceded by a slick video collage of images of war and peace, history and development, cut to the Iranian anthem. The video touches a chord with many delegates from other Islamic countries, attacking as it does what Ahmadinejad sees as the power and exploitative behaviour of Western media, and praising the "justice and truth" of their own TV and radio networks. Delegates flock to have their pictures taken with the President. It is a sea of smiling faces and good humour, and a vivid demonstration of Iran's ability to override isolation. I remind myself of the conversation I have just had with my counterpart at Radio Netherlands about an Iranian-Dutch friend, a well-known campaigner for human rights, who has been arrested by the Iranian authorities.

We also have the opportunity to visit the headquarters of Iran's new English-language international television service, Press TV, which has a strong new technological base and an interesting mix of staff, some from England, and some with a past at the BBC. The producer on the intake desk hails from the Midlands, and did stints with BBC local radio in Nottingham and Derby. There are 80 staff in the new-media area alone. For Iran, having an English news channel is about validity and influence, about being taken seriously alongside other countries who have recently launched similar channels, countries like Russia, France and China.

We leave Iran via the sumptuous Imam Khomeini international airport, which has just opened. It makes Heathrow Terminal One look jaded and sad, and is a reminder that Iran's economy is buoyed by oil wealth. The coffee shop offers every kind of latte; dollars are the currency of choice. Images of the supreme leaders, Khomeini and Khameni, look down on us.

It is further evidence, if such were needed, that Iran is a world power, and comfortable with ambiguous symbols under the same roof. Iran is a big story and a fascinating one. It would be good to bring this to audiences everywhere, and in turn open a wider world to Iran through our Persian-language broadcasting. But that will require a leap of faith on all sides – and the Iranian authorities less strenuously drawing a line under what they see as the errors and omissions of the BBC's past.

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