Fight on two fronts

More than 200 people attended the November 17 conference, 'The first casualty: war, truth and the media today', reports Tina Becker. The SWP's apologetic position on Iran was very much present, as were journalists from the Iranian television channel, Press TV. But contributions from the floor were much more encouraging

Considering that Media Workers Against the War had effectively been dormant for the last 12 months or so, the turnout was a pleasant surprise. There seem to be three reasons for this - chiefly, of course, the increasing likelihood that the US will launch some kind of military action against Iran. Also, the National Union of Journalists had mobilised for the event and - last, but not least - the Socialist Workers Party also sent maybe 15 of its members.

The purpose of the event was a little less clear, to put it mildly. It was aimed at - and mainly addressed by - liberal bourgeois journalists. However, most people in the audience were clearly of a more radical persuasion and I doubt if many of those present actually write or comment on the question of war in their day-to-day work.

Journalists like Andrew Gilligan (who was sacked from the BBC over his slightly dodgy exposure of the 'dodgy dossier') and Guardian commentator Peter Wilby shared their insights into how time pressure and the political persuasion of the medium's proprietor influence a journalist's work. Though often entertaining, not much controversy or practical advice was forthcoming from the main platform. A little pointless, in other words.

As I found out only at the end of the day, the whole event was filmed by Press TV, the English-language TV and internet platform "set up and paid for by Iran". But "that does not mean it is biased", as a rather naive young woman told the conference. It was rather frightening to see how many British journalists seem to have been signed up by the Iranian state to help push the theocracy's propaganda. I counted over half a dozen. A young filmmaker told me how he was approached by Press TV to make a number of "well paid documentaries" on the international anti-war movement and how surprised he was that Michael Albert from Zmag.org told him to get lost because of the station's direct connections to Iran. After he found out about Hopi's position, he quickly made his excuses and left.

The workshop on 'War plan Iran' was chaired by the now infamous Somaye Zadeh from the Socialist Workers Party-backed Campaign Iran. At the Stop the War Coalition conference on October 27, she made a deeply unsettling speech about the "five lies that are told about Iran", which included the "lie" that "Iran is an undemocratic and repressive country". She 'proved' this thesis to be 'untrue' through such ridiculous facts that, after all, "Iran has the only squad of female firefighters anywhere in the Middle East". Oh yes, and "a female champion race car driver" (see Weekly Worker November 1 - her whole speech is available on the CPGB website).

The main speaker was Abbas Edalat of the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran (of which Campaign Iran is a part), whose main speech was, as usual, focused solely on the threat of war. He did not even mention the democracy movement in Iran.

After a fair number of critical voices from the floor, the meeting got more interesting. For example, the contribution of BBC journalist Shaimaa Khalil (who wore a headscarf) was far to the left of these so-called secularists. She said that - while opposing the war - we should be honest about the situation in Iran itself and not be silent about human rights abuses there.

Rebecca Johnson from the Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy insisted that we should not appear to be ignorant of the fact that Iran could very well be trying to develop nuclear weapons: "The US and Israel should not have nuclear weapons. So we should clearly say that Iran should not have them either."

Just like my own contribution on the importance of the Hands Off the People of Iran campaign and the need to fight on two fronts, these critical voices received healthy applause from about half of the packed meeting (there were maybe 60 people at the workshop).

The most idiotic contribution came from an SWP member who demanded that "trade unionists here should not support trade unionists in Iran now. Regime change from below is just not on the agenda." This was the first time I have actually heard an SWPer come out so clearly with the demand for socialists in Iran and Britain to suspend their struggle for democracy, freedom and workers' rights. To my knowledge this comrade is not a leading member of the SWP, but she clearly and - probably instinctively - expressed the logic of the SWP's apologetic position.

Sadly, this was followed by an unfounded allegation against Hopi from the main platform. BBC journalist Amir Amirani told the meeting he had received an email from Hopi member Yassamine Mather urging him "not to attend this conference". He had the proof in his pocket and this should tell people something about Hopi. My attempt to point out the likelihood of some kind of misunderstanding was not exactly welcomed by the chair. Afterwards, I asked Amir Amirani to show me the email and of course it said nothing of the sort.

Because a number of people approached me after the meeting about this allegation, I think it is useful to quote comrade Mather's email: "I noticed you are speaking at the Media Workers Against the War conference in a couple of weeks' time. I am afraid the Stop the War Coalition leadership is taking an apologist position regarding Iran's islamic regime and those of us involved in the Hands Off the People of Iran campaign have tried to draw attention to an alternative position - one that says no to imperialist war and sanctions against Iran, but also criticise the theocratic regime in Iran. I hope you will support our position, as Moshé Machover and hundreds of others have done and raise an alternative voice to that of the apologists of the regime in the conference in November" (my emphasis).

A principled, correct approach that hopefully many Hopi supporters will take when they hear about events like this one. Let us hope that this really was only a misunderstanding on Amir Amirani's side.

Less surprising was Abbas Edalat's reply: "To call for an overthrow of the islamic regime means helping the US in their war threats." Apparently, he is unable to distinguish between an overthrow by US imperialism and the mass action of the workers, students and women's movements from below. He went further. Pointing at me, he shouted: "Everybody in the anti-war movement should condemn those people who call for the overthrow of the islamic republic. Condemn them, I say."

I'm not sure what exactly he would like to condemn us to, but it did not sound too pleasant. Despite his rather hysterical comments, Hopi campaigners at the conference found considerable interest and sympathy, and we signed up a number of new supporters to the campaign.