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February 09, 2006

Curse Those Complicit Media Outlets!

Perhaps you remember George Bush and Tony Blair used to get mad at Al Jazeera for broadcasting tapes of bin Laden, on the grounds the tapes might include secret messages for his minions.

In light of that, here's an interesting slice of 1953 history from Stephen Kinzer's All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. The "Roosevelt" it refers to is Kermit Roosevelt (grandson of Teddy). He'd been sent to Iran by the CIA in order to organize the overthrow of the democratically-elected Mossadegh government:

Roosevelt told the Shah that he was in Iran on behalf of the American and British secret services, and that this would be confirmed by a code word the Shah would be able to hear on the BBC the next night. Churchill had arranged that the BBC would end its broadcast day by saying not "It is now midnight," as usual, but "It is now exactly midnight."

This makes me wonder two things:

1. When reporting on the Bush/Blair complaints, did the BBC mention this part of its own history—i.e., happily facilitating the overthrow of a government in a Muslim country?

2. Is the BBC still doing this kind of thing?

EXTRA CREDIT: In the run up to the invasion of Iraq, Andrew Sullivan liked to call the BBC the "Baghdad Broadcasting Company" on the grounds it was "actively cooperating with Saddam."

Sullivan has many talents, but where he's really world class is his ability to know nothing whatsoever about history.

Posted at February 9, 2006 09:10 PM | TrackBack

Keep up the good work. Was it Stalin who said, "History would be nice, if only it was true?"

...or maybe Tolstoy. Hmph.

Posted by: Darryl Pearce at February 10, 2006 12:25 AM

I sincerely doubt that the BBC was given an instruction that explicitly said that if they announced the codeword, they would prompt the overthrow of a goverment. More likely they were simply asked to use the codeword without explanation.

There is a long history of this: it was very important during the second world war. And, I expect that it is still happening. Bear in mind that this will be the BBC World Service, which has always been much more of a political baby than the rest of the BBC.

Posted by: Foobar at February 10, 2006 04:42 AM

That's a pretty low threshold. If I were going to need a sign to know that entire governments were supporting some action... "exactly" would not be enough.

That sounds pretty mentally unhealthy, actually: "You don't understand. They normally say, 'It is now midnight.' Tonight they said, 'It is now EXACTLY midnight.' That's a sign!"

Posted by: Zach at February 10, 2006 08:37 AM

Just backing up the BBC broadcasting various coded messages during WWII. It was one reason why being caught listening to it was a hanging offence in occupied countries.
Don't know if it's ever been a scene in a film, but I've read descriptions how on the nights before D-Day hundreds of code-phrases were read out, each activating a cell to start sabotage, or whatever.
(There's a description of how one Resistance man, to destroy an important bridge, had to load up his bike with explosives & blow himself up.)
But it was also used in this kind of confirmation - if dropped-in agent was having trouble persuading the locals, they'd say to listen and that a certain phrase would be used to confirm the Brits were behind them.

Posted by: Mez at February 12, 2006 07:48 AM