Joan Smith: Press payments will undermine credibility

What I've witnessed since the hostages were released amounts to a weird form of self-loathing
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No one can seriously have believed that the kidnapped British sailors and marines would return from Iran, spend time with their families and return quietly to their units. Like contestants emerging from the Big Brother house - and I intend the comparison as a comment on the behaviour of the British press, not to belittle the hostages' ghastly experience - they have been through something just about everyone wants to know about, regardless of the fact that they are serving members of the armed forces.

An added pressure is the barrage of critical comments in the British media about they way they conducted themselves while they were prisoners in Iran, which is the most likely explanation of the Ministry of Defence's bizarre decision to allow them to sell their stories to news organisations. It feels like crisis-management, a bad call made by people who aren't used to handling the media and don't understand the dreadful effects of chequebook journalism; when editors hand over large quantities of cash, they assume the right to embellish and distort the material over which they now have ownership.

That's without even taking into account the offence caused to soldiers injured in Iraq, who may well feel that the 15 were lucky just to emerge unscathed from their ordeal. But the most regrettable consequence is that what the former hostages have to say of their own free will may now be regarded with as much scepticism as their "confessions" under duress in Iran. Already hostile commentators are claiming to have spotted inconsistencies in their accounts, while there has been the usual rush by armchair generals to denounce their willingness to co-operate with their captors.

I can't help wondering whether some of the more flagrant offenders would be quite so bold if they found themselves in a cell in Tehran with a bunch of Revolutionary Guards. What I'm not prepared to put up with is the outrageous sanctification of a regime that habitually beats, tortures and murders its own citizens. If I had been among the group of sailors and marines seized by the Iranians, I would have feared everything from psychological pressure to mock executions - and I would be incensed, on my safe return, by suggestions that my captors were as kindly and well-intentioned as the Women's Institute.

At a press conference last week, some of the former hostages described being bound, blindfolded and hearing weapons cocked, leading one of them to vomit in the belief that he was about to face a firing squad. I immediately recalled my meeting a few years ago with Faraj Sarkohi, an Iranian journalist who was kidnapped by the regime at Tehran airport; Sarkohi told me that he was blindfolded, interrogated and sentenced to death three times, and waited nine agonising months in prison for the sentence to be carried out. It wasn't, but he was beaten regularly and his jaw was badly broken.

I've also talked to Akbar Ganji, the democracy activist who almost died on hunger strike while serving a six-year sentence for "spreading propaganda against the Islamic system". The authorities loathe Ganji because he has repeatedly implicated officials of the Iranian government in the serial murders of dissidents and intellectuals during the 1990s.

Similar incidents are still going on: in November 2005, the Appeals Court upheld the acquittal of an Intelligence Ministry official accused of the exceptionally brutal murder of Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian-Iranian photojournalist, in custody in 2003. Iran has been described as "the biggest prison for journalists in the Middle East", and was second only to China in the total number of executions carried out in 2005; it isn't unusual to see corpses, including those of young gay men, swinging from gallows and cranes in public places.

Hundreds of Tehran bus drivers were arrested last year for taking part in a series of strikes, and women have been beaten and arrested for joining in demonstrations against the regime. Iran is a theocracy, and its unelected Council of Guardians barred more than 1,000 presidential candidates in the 2005 elections, including all 89 women.

Against this background, I've felt like vomiting myself over the last few days as one apologist after another has stood up for this unspeakable regime. At the weekend, callers to Radio 4's Any Answers programme boasted that they supported Iran, painting a picture of a beleaguered nation bravely resisting the bullies of the West; naturally it wasn't long before that most egregious of clerics, Michael Nazir-Ali, Bishop of Rochester, joined in, praising Iran's "moral and spiritual" values and questioning whether there were any values on the British side. Nazir-Ali was supported by a Roman Catholic bishop, Thomas Burns, who praised the Iranians for "an act of mercy in accordance with their religion".

At one level, such idiotic remarks suggest that even the most hardline Islamist only has to mention the Prophet and Jesus Christ in the same sentence to demolish the bishops' critical faculties entirely; clerics are easily taken in by religious language, even if it's wholly at odds with practice, as it certainly is in Iran. Personally, I wouldn't expect any better from Nazir-Ali, who once appeared on a televisionprogramme with me and affected astonishment that anyone was interested in my recently-published book on liberal secular values

But I detect another phenomenon behind this wave of popular sympathy for Iran, which is the way in which people who dislike the British government's policy in the Middle East are prepared to close their eyes to the reality of some of the world's nastiest regimes. There is no contradiction - I know, because I've done it - in opposing the Iraq war and, at the same time, recognising that Iran abuses human rights on a huge scale. It's also possible to acknowledge and condemn human rights abuses by Western nations while insisting that liberal secular democracy is a better system of government than the dictatorships and theocracies which make everyday life such a misery in the Middle East.

A belief in universal human rights does not allow me to argue fatuously that anyone who criticises the British government is my friend. Indeed, it seems to me that what I've witnessed over the past few days, since the British hostages were released, amounts to a weird form of self-loathing. People who enjoy all the benefits of living in a Western democracy have abased themselves before President Ahmadinejad, praising him for his "mercy" in releasing hostages who shouldn't have been taken in the first place. Let the sailors and marines tell their stories, by all means; my only regret is that they're being allowed to accept money for doing it.