New news, old battles
In the 2013 American comedy Anchorman 2, Ron Burgundy ends his patriotic show on the 24-hour news channel GNN with this signoff: “Don’t just have a great night, have an American Night”. Britain’s very own Ron Burgundy, Gavin Williamson, must have taken note, because he wanted schoolchildren to sing “Strong Britain, Great Nation” at school. This is maybe less a political goal than a plot to put satirists out of business.
Where America leads, Britain usually follows. I was reminded of that film with the launch of GB News, an openly patriotic channel that some see as a British Fox News. The new kid on a block occupied by Times Radio and LBC, GB News not only poached BBC and ITV veteran broadcasters but triumphed over the BBC and Sky news channels in its launch ratings – despite being mocked for technical difficulties.
The government may have abandoned its Union Jack-festooned, White Housestyle press room for the moment, but was busy with talk of reviving plans to privatise Channel 4, while simultaneously firing the latest salvo in the culture wars – with a Tory-dominated Commons report on underperforming poor white children. In an interesting interpretation, the report claimed general use of the term “white privilege” as a possible cause of “systemic neglect of white people facing hardship…”.
Taken together, our social, political and cultural landscapes are morphing perceptibly into those of America. So it may be unwise to crow too loudly about poor sound on GB News, because Britain’s airwaves will soon be ringing to the deafening tunes of the culture wars, and it won’t be all “white noise”.
Being Iranian in the UK is a heady and confusing experience, because one can feel both reverence and revulsion for one’s country and culture in quick succession. I had the opportunity to experience both this month, thanks to a museum visit and the Iranian elections.
I joined my two Iranian walking buddies Shahrokh and Mona at the V&A Museum’s “Epic Iran” exhibition, billed by the Guardian as “5000 years of mystical magnificence”. As we walked around the impressive galleries, we discussed how museums are, like historiography, an exercise in interpretation and selection. Whose story to tell, and how to frame the narrative?
Here was a pillar of Britain’s cultural establishment celebrating the majesty of Iranian history, while a couple of miles down the road in Downing Street a conspiracy had been hatched to overthrow the Iranian PM Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, for nationalising Iran’s oil industry. The exhibition even features a painting of Mossadegh, with a label which merely notes that “Mossadegh’s pose, his clenched fist, the hunch of his shoulder, speak of defeated hope”. But no mention of the MI6 coup which killed that hope.
So much for the reverence. The week after my visit to the V&A, Iran elected the hardline conservative cleric Ebrahim Raissi as President, and then came the revulsion at the outcome.
Public discussion of Anglo-Iranian relations is divorced from reality, because whereas the US admits its role in the coup, the UK simply won’t – a perverse position that reinforces mistrust of Britain felt by Iranians, for whom the fateful coup remains a deep wound, but is barely a footnote to most people in the west.
A few lucky people had the chance to hear about it at a talk by Walter Murch in the Primrose Hill Lecture Series, entitled “Behind the Seen”. Walter is a film industry legend, having worked on films including Apocalypse Now, The Godfather I, II and III, American Graffiti, The Conversation and The English Patient. During his career, he has been nominated for nine Academy Awards and won three and has spent the best part of the past six years co-writing and editing Coup53, a film directed by my brother, Taghi Amirani, which I co-produced.
In the film, which is the most complete account yet of the coup, Ralph Fiennes portrays Norman Darbyshire, the MI6 man who masterminded it, a fact still unacknowledged by the UK to this day. I commend the film both as a vital history lesson and as a work of art; it now sits in the select 100% Fresh Club on Rotten Tomatoes, alongside Battleship Potemkin, The 400 Blows, Twelve Angry Men and Tokyo Story.
As I left the V&A, an idea occurred to me for a new museum. The Washington Post estimates 72 attempts at regime change coups backed by the U.S. between 1947 and 1989. Why isn’t there a Museum of Coups? I hereby plant a flag in the sand for the idea. And if the flag strikes oil beneath those sands, no doubt BP or Texaco will claim it as theirs.
Years ago, I made a Radio 4 documentary called From Tehran with Laughter, about the little-known fact that Iranians love comedy. The very idea had come as a great surprise to the mandarins at the BBC. But now I offer you another cultural nugget – Iranians are football mad. The Daily Mail even ran a big piece about Iranian football legend Ali Daei, holder of the all-time men’s international goal record with 109 goals – until 23 June, when Cristiano Ronaldo equalled it. And by the time you read this, the great Portuguese striker will probably have beaten the record!
I love football, and after Liverpool’s disappointing season I even looked forward to the Euros, which, together with other regional competitions, feel like a desiccated version of the World Cup. I dutifully joined the estimated 20 million TV audience to watch the much hyped England v Scotland game. But at half-time I turned in desperation to my friend Paul and asked if he had a tin of paint lying around so I could sit and watch it dry. That would have been more fun than suffering the game that ended in a 0-0 draw.
If England do get far in the competition, I expect some governmental, flag-waving, Alan Partridge manqué to exclaim: “This wasn’t just a Great Euros. This was a British Euros”. I’ll bring my own paint.
Amir Amirani is a writer and filmmaker. His film “We Are Many” is on Amazon Prime. “Coup53” is also available to watch online. amiramirani.com