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Multicultural Man: On Nazanin

Why Woman's Hour's airing of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe's sobbing was manipulative

Picture: The New European

Did anyone else hear Woman’s Hour on March 16? The long-running Radio 4 magazine programme – seen in many ways as the fons et origo of Second Wave Feminist journalism in Britain – began with a short introduction by its presenter, Emma Barnett. “She is free…” Barnett intoned portentously, then gave a potted history of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s six-year ordeal after being detained in Iran, before continuing: “This is the sound of Nazanin as she arrived and embraced her child at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.” There followed 23 full seconds of Zaghari-Ratcliffe sobbing hysterically, before Barnett came back in to inform listeners that this had been recorded by the daughter of Anoosheh Ashoori (the other returning freed Anglo-Iranian) and posted on her Instagram account.

Where do I begin when it comes to critiquing this beginning? First, it was viscerally distressing to hear this woman’s visceral distress: Zaghari-Ratcliffe really doesn’t sound as if she’s sobbing with joy – and why would she necessarily be? We know she was subject to tortures during her imprisonment, not least of which was the way the Iranian authorities toyed with her, time and again taking a halting step towards releasing her – then adroitly withdrawing her once more into the stygian depths of the ghastly Evin prison.

What those sobs sound like are the traumatic moments when, seeing her young daughter for the first time in more than half a decade, Zaghari-Ratcliffe fully grasps the enormity of what she has irretrievably lost – far more than anything she may have gained. This has to be right, emotionally: for there are no counterfactuals, and Zaghari-Ratcliffe had no way of knowing, as she sobbed into the speaker of this stranger’s smartphone, whether this was redemption – whereas she could be absolutely certain she had been damned.

I’m sure plenty of you reading this will think I’m overreacting – in which case, don’t take my word for it, listen yourselves; for in our Twittery world – frenetic with world-girdling gossiping and ubiquitous eavesdropping – it’s not enough that our most intimate and traumatic moments should be instantly and universally available, they must also remain so for eternity.

Some may argue something of this form: Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, Richard, together with their family’s supporters, deliberately cultivated a high-profile media campaign in pursuit of her liberation. Surely, I’d allow that this strategy worked, and that it therefore ill-behoves them to now recoil from almost any intrusion: after all, those who live by the stimulation of popular regard cannot then refuse it its beloved and climactic catharsis.

Indeed. For all I know, Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her supporters may have actively encouraged Elika Ashoori to both make the recording and post it, yet for me, it remains a strange sort of abomination: the lens of 24/7 news coverage magnifying that sickly emotive tendency in Radio 4 to nauseating heights. The way the recording was framed suggested that Woman’s Hour felt this was the very fulfilment of the Reithian vision: nation shall sob uncontrollably unto nation.

Uncontrollably – or possibly hysterically. For it’s this adverb that is forced on the listener’s consciousness, before being expeditiously repressed; because, of course, Woman’s Hour would never celebrate a woman’s deliverance by endorsing this most egregious and belittling of stereotypes, would they?

Some might rebut me along these lines: I myself am exhibiting a very masculinist stereotype, according to which any overt displays of emotion are unacceptable, as are those who make them. Yet it’s not the emotion I object to at all – all of human being (and that of other animals, too) is feeling, so far as I’m concerned. No, it’s the way formerly august media outlets – such as WH – now feel no shame at all when it comes to manipulating their listeners,
viewers or readers.

Because it is manipulative – to the point of being controlling, if not actually coercive – when one person’s feelings are foregrounded in this way. Once heard, it becomes difficult – if not impossible – to forget that sobbing, a pain that even if it only provokes the most transient empathy, is patently big enough to blot out any number of awkward queries.

How many tuned in at 10 on the 16th, thought to themselves: “Poor woman, so happy for her and her family…” then relapsed into obliviousness without questioning why in 1979 the British government had permitted the sale of 1,500 tanks and armoured vehicles to the Shah of Iran’s notoriously repressive regime; why negotiations for Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release had been affected; and, most importantly: why, after decades of claiming that sanctions prevented the refunding of the £400m Iran had paid for this equipment, HMG suddenly located the proverbial – if anachronistic – chequebook. Questions which – to be fair – were raised by Barnett in her subsequent interview with Liz Truss; although by that time nobody was paying much attention to the foreign secretary’s evasive answers. Including me.

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