Syria – More Red Herrings than Red Lines
As someone who is a mere consumer of news and in no way a journalist I am not qualified to judge how reporters go about their business. However, even mere consumers with moderate intelligence and some semblance of memory are questioning how the Syrian Civil War is being reported by the UK and US media.
Leaving the US media for a moment, this consumer has been struck by the momentum towards an interventionist tone that appears to be present in UK TV news outlets. Most liberals would take as read that when it comes to a Western/NATO led narrative News International organisations (Sky, The Times, etc) are least likely to vigorously challenge an official narrative.
For example, in the first news report on Sky News immediately following their live coverage of the rescue of the three woman from captors in Ohio, the Sky News reader stated, merging a quote from a US anti-Assad politician and Sky’s own narrative, As we know, the Assad Regime has used chemical weapons and now the UN says Syrian Rebels may have too.
This one throwaway comment says so much. Either the merging of the politician’s words and the Sky narrative was lazily accidental, or a brazen attempt to mislead the public. Either way, it was demonstrably untrue. Taking as read that the Syrian Regime has used chemical weapons is to ignore that, despite determined efforts by many to find facts to back up such a claim, not one shred of evidence has been uncovered. If such evidence of regime use of chemical weapons had been turned up, NATO would be insisting on UN or NATO intervention immediately.
Another implication of that throwaway comment is that things are spiralling out of control so of course we have to intervene now. This is an example of UK TV news becoming nothing more than a mouthpiece for UK foreign policy when the role of media, as this consumer understands it, is to challenge official (and unofficial) narratives.
But Sky News is simply being predictable. More concerning is the timidity of the BBC which, for all its faults, has the capacity to challenge and inform. And yet every report on Syria seems to either report sympathetically on the UK government’s claims that Assad may have used chemical weapons, or at least fails to give equal time and examination of the Syrian Regime’s denials.
For instance, what about the angle that Assad would be highly unlikely to use chemical weapons while NATO has him squarely in its sights with an increasingly itchy finger on the trigger? NATO are desperate to intervene and create a NATO/Israeli friendly regime in Syria. Geopolitically, it’s the obvious move for The West. So Assad, even were he yet another “new Hitler”, and even were he not bound by moral constraints, would commit strategic suicide if he used chemical weapons.
The only globally powerful ally Assad has impeding Western intervention, Russia, would drop Assad instantly (and then compromise with the US in order to settle for a share of the carve up of post Assad Syria) were he to use chemical weapons. Russia can support him (and therefore maintain their warm water port access and other strategic regional imperatives) while such regional advantages don’t cost them politically. Should Assad use chemical weapons, the price of supporting him (and maintaining Russia’s regional advantages) arguably becomes too high.
The above are sound (yet rarely reported) reasons for Assad not to use chemical weapons. He of course may not behave soundly. But any analysis of the evidence and his regime’s motivations make it highly unlikely he has done or will do. I confess I have not watched every news bulletin as I have a living to earn. But while I have seen detailed BBC reports on why Assad might have used chemical weapons and what the interventionist options are, I have not seen any BBC (or ITN or Sky) main news reports detailing why Assad may be unlikely to use them.
There are several factors at work here.
Firstly, there is the age old official pressure on news outlets to, if not actively support the official narrative, then at least not damage it unduly. The punishment of course would be lack of access for reporters in the offending news organisations. Not only that, but also the promise from officialdom that a reporter’s rivals would be given succulent news items thus ensuring such rivals appeared ahead of the game when reporting with their insider scoops. Spin doctors use this threat all the time. It’s both implied and stated. Should a reporter find himself/herself excluded, the long-term implication is that they may lose their value to the organisations they report for and unemployment beckons.
One could argue that the holy grail of access is access to nothing other than officially approved news items, with just a few strategically placed juicy items and insider gossip to make such access of some value. One could further argue that another route to any real story is to actually investigate.
Of course the BBC, ITN and others have many courageous, investigative and combative journalists. Who can forget Andrew Gilligan’s brilliant expose of the sexed-up WMD claims of Blair’s government, or John Humphries grilling of his own boss, George Entwistle. There are many other examples too.
However, there are not enough of them regarding Syria currently. Has Hague been taken to task over the evidence he claims is so damning that he wants to take us to war? Has the TV main news programmes dwelled at all on the comparison between this weapons scare and the WMD nonsense that cost so many lives in Iraq? I really do hope someone can prove me wrong here. Maybe I have simply missed such challenging reports …
The second factor perhaps at work is that many in the News Industry come from similar backgrounds to those in power, and while this does not necessarily compromise their integrity, it’s plausible that they may have generally similar world views. If this is the case, then arguably this narrows the news analysis somewhat. For instance, why challenge William Hague on his claim that Assad has used chemical weapons if in your heart of hearts you share his view that it’s probable he has done, or could do.
Another a related factor is that most mainstream, journalists whether left, centre or right, would describe themselves as humanitarians. So when the official narrative on Syria describes Humanitarian Intervention, there is an inclination on the part of journalists (and the public) to respond sympathetically. Perhaps the debate subtly changes from To Intervene Or Not to How Best To Intervene.
What about the famous cynicism of journalists, I hear you ask. Surely they wouldn’t fall for all that humanitarian bull. After all, many of these guys are veterans of WMD, of the disaster than was intervention in Iraq. Surely there are no more hard-bitten, battle-hardened truth-searchers than these guys.
That’s logical. However, I would content that the official narrative has avoided the WMD, and indeed, the war pitfalls by not calling war, war. Should the official narrative describe bombing Syrian troops and civilians as war, then the news industry would perhaps be more cautious in supporting such a narrative and indeed more combative against it because they and their audiences would be naturally inquisitive. Why are we going to War?
But it’s much harder to combat cuddly and supposedly surgical Humanitarian Intervention, especially if your own world-view is not diametrically opposed to the official narrative of saving lives, or its proponents, many of whom you may have shared schooling and other formative experiences with and, indeed, maintain a close proximity too. When conflict is called Humanitarian Intervention, it perhaps lets such people of the hook and allows them to indulge their own shared unconscious comfort zones and maybe even latent prejudices.
News editors and reporters, I imagine, are keenly aware of their audiences and what is most likely to engage or upset them. Being seen to be Anti-Interventionist can be seen by some to be Anti-Humanitarian. There’s a charge to avoid in a ratings war.
I’m in no way an Assad sympathiser. No democrat can be. Nevertheless as a consumer and a voter, I want to make up my own mind on major issues and I rely on professional, investigative, challenging reporters to inform me. This piece is not a siren criticism of journalists. I’m not qualified to do so. It is more a plea for the questions I and others have to be asked on our behalf by those who are qualified.
Questions such as why after the UN’s Carla del Ponte stated that there was evidence Syrian rebels used chemical weapons, is the UK government even more determined to arm the rebels? So, if Assad uses them we obliterate him, but if our friends use them then we intervene on their side? Humanitarian? Really? What about the suggestion from some that the rebels used chemical weapons deliberately as a ruse to get US/UK to intervene? Were they guided in any way to this course of action? If so by whom? What about the attempts to smear del Ponte and pressure the UN into retracting her statement by US and UK official sources?
That’s a lot of questions relating to what could be our next war. I do not know the answers to the above. It is perhaps too ambitious to request answers. But is it asking too much for the media to at least ask the questions?