“Coup 53 is a potentially valuable documentary film spoilt by false assertions and fake news” by Mick Csáky

A Personal View

8 November 2020

The 2019 film Coup 53, directed by Taghi Amirani and edited by Walter Murch, could have been a very useful reminder of the way that the UK (MI6) and the USA (CIA) brought down Iran’s first democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in order to install the puppet Shah and gain control of Iran’s massive oil reserves. It is a story well worth telling not least to help explain the continuing enmity between Iran and the UK, and Iran and the USA.

However, the makers of Coup 53 allowed themselves to get very distracted into making false claims against another documentary film on the same subject, made by Granada Television within a series called End of Empire (executive producer Brian Lapping, director Mark Anderson and researcher Alison Rooper), shown on Channel 4 in 1985.

Furthermore, Coup 53 claims to be revealing Britain’s role in the coup of 1953 for the very first time – a fact that has been confirmed many times in previous documentary films and books (including Anthony Sampson’s insightful book The Seven Sisters which I drew upon heavily while directing the 8 x 1-hour documentary series OIL shown on Channel 4 in 1986).

In my 1986 series OIL, I devoted half of one episode to telling the story of the 1953 coup. I was fortunate enough to interview the two people who had orchestrated the coup in Iran – Monty Woodhouse of MI6 and Kermit Roosevelt of the CIA. Should the makers of Coup 53 have wanted to tell their story more thoroughly, they could have benefited greatly by drawing on these two interviews that clearly acknowledged the power-grab by the UK and USA.

As a fellow film maker, I admire many things about the film Coup 53 but I feel very uncomfortable about the way it has presented numerous unfounded assertions as facts when they are simply not true. This is a pity because there are some very well-constructed archive and interview sequences within the film, and some excellent animated passages which fill in the gaps where photographs and archive film were not available to tell the story.

One of the things that disturbs me most about Coup 53 is the success it has had at film festivals when shown to people unaware of the facts concerning the coup of 1953 and the End of Empire series. What’s more, numerous distinguished players in the UK’s media world have been taken in by the film – including such luminaries as Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian, Jon Snow of Channel 4 News and David Puttnam who have all lavished praise on the film.

As a documentary maker with a strong interest in revealing the key events behind important moments in modern history, the film Coup 53 makes me more than a little unhappy. However, that said, the film could be redeemed by the removal of several factual errors and especially all the false claims made against Granada’s End of Empire film.

Of course, this would mean abandoning one of the main and very mischievous selling points of Coup 53 – the false claim that Granada TV was leant on by the UK government not to use a filmed interview with the MI6 operative Norman Derbyshire.

Having spoken at length with the End of Empire production team, I am convinced that Derbyshire was never filmed. However, he did provide a background research interview which was recorded on an audio-cassette recorder for transcription. It was the transcript of this audio interview that the makers of Coup 53 incorrectly concluded was evidence that an interview had been filmed.

Inevitably, it would be painful for the Coup 53 film makers to re-edit their film and to remove all the factually incorrect sections, but they would ultimately be doing themselves a favour by demonstrating that an important story like the coup of 1953 can be told without the use of gratuitous publicity gained from provocative fake news and false assertions.

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