Channel 4’s ‘Case Against Assad’: some questions to keep in mind

              We will not hear a case for the defence, so viewers who believe in due process are left to work out questions to ask of the accusers.

Channel 4 this week is to present a renewed ‘case against Assad’. Having examined a number of previous such cases advanced via the Western media and NGOs, I have learned to look carefully at whether they claim more than they prove, or are even actively misleading. So I shall be watching the programme with some questions in mind.

Although what follows is very much a note to myself – a reminder to stay critical even as I prepare to be moved emotionally by harrowing human stories – I am posting it here because I do think that if a prosecutor’s case is being made in the court of public opinion, we, the viewing jury, should endeavour – in the spirit of recognizing the right of due process – to imagine together what a counsel for the defence might have asked, given a chance. And it is not just procedures at stake. Those hoping to precipitate regime change leave uncertain what would follow, except that any new regime would be more accommodating to the Western and Gulf states that are backing the Islamist fighters. Those fighters have controlled the areas they have captured by abducting, enslaving, raping, trafficking, beheading people at will, preventing children going to school or the sick receiving treatment, restricting access to food, restricting freedom of movement, and generally disregarding human rights and laws of war. To wish their rule on the Syrian people would, in my opinion, be evil. At the very least, contemplation of it should serve to inject some balance into the assessment of the government’s actions against insurgency and of how best to prevent crimes against humanity.

 

For what it’s worth, then, here are some questions I shall keep in mind:

– How much does this new ‘case’ recycle material that has been used in previous attempts to sway public opinion (usually just before some important decision is to be taken) only subsequently to be discredited by critical analysts? (I shall watch out particularly for a revival of the notorious and repeatedly discredited Caesar photographs.[1]) I shall also be alert to the presentation of large numbers of alleged victims provided without evidence or corroboration by NGOs created since 2011 with the clear mission of supporting regime change in Syria.[2]

– If new evidence is presented, does the programme explain why it is only now coming to light? What does it show? How credible is it?

– How much of the programme is devoted to conjuring a picture of the horrors of being subjected to appalling mistreatment, as opposed to presenting evidence of occurrences? (I have in mind, for instance, how computerised models of ‘forensic architecture’ were used in the imaginative storytelling technique recently deployed by Amnesty International, in place of actual evidence.[3])

– Do the programme makers, to enhance the effect, throw in mention of other allegations that they are not directly making and which have already been seriously questioned, if not refuted, by authoritative sources (such as chemical weapons accusations[4]).

– If anonymity is accorded any witnesses heard, are satisfactory grounds given for it? (Otherwise, one is left unsure whether the anonymity really serves to prevent discoveries that would tell against the testimony supplied.)

– Does the programme present a vivid case for a small number of victims and then extrapolate to very large numbers without explaining the methodology? Are the direct witnesses interviewed for the programme definitely representative of larger numbers? Can we have confidence in the numbers presented?

– Finally, I shall be wanting to check whether the programme corrects or repeats the errors and omissions of similar-sounding reports that have been presented before, as for instance, in April 2016 by Ben Taub, whose claims were critically analysed by Daniel Lazare.

I realise that anyone who has not closely scrutinised previous ‘cases’ against Assad might feel that the degree of scepticism implicit here – before the film has even been broadcast – looks somewhat prejudicial. But a documentary is not supposed to be a drama that enlists our willing suspension of disbelief, so a sceptical approach should not be objectionable.  More importantly, an unprejudiced commitment to human rights means accepting that the accused has a right of defence. If the media seldom allow any defence to be heard, it is left to us to ask questions of the prosecution’s case.[5] Most important, of course, is our collective obligation – and, I hope, our right – to scrutinise any public pronouncement that could influence support for military deployment in our name.

If none of the issues flagged arises, then I shall be greatly pleased that Channel 4 will have earned the commendation of an erstwhile sceptic for an accurate and illuminating documentary.

rtr3wjai-

Photo credit: Reuters

[1] Rick Sterling has made a close study of what he calls the Caesar hoax, and links to it from his summary of it here. For an extensive wiki-style discussion of the Caesar photos, their uses and credibility see the collaborative investigation for A Closer Look On Syria gathered here.

[2] Among NGOs that have asserted large numbers of deaths and detentions without providing checkable evidence of the people concerned or clear methodological justification for the large numbers projected are Syrian Institute for Justice and Accountability, Violations Documentation Center in Syria, and Syrian Network for Human Rights. If information from these organizations is relied on, then it is subject to the criticism already made of Amnesty International in relying on it. (For an introduction to this, see my earlier piece ‘How We Were Misled About Syria: Amnesty International’.)

[3] This strategy of the recent Amnesty International publication was widely condemned as tantamount to fabricating evidence. See, for instance, Tony Cartalucci, and Moon of Alabama. I also briefly remarked on it at the time here. Those shown here to have discredited it include former British Ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford, who had earlier visited the prison in question, and stated the report ‘would not stand scrutiny’. The Independent acknowledges that there is concern about the report. CNN sets out the immediate political stakes in the controversy at the time. Further critical discussions are cited here.

[4] Such accusations have repeatedly been leveled at the Syrian government in the media despite considerable evidence and testimony to indicate the opposition’s responsibility for the confirmed uses of chemical weapons in Syria. This has been acknowledged even by opposition sources, along with independent experts in American and UK as well as Russia. It was this awareness in the background that probably explains why the UK and US held back on their planned attacks that took the alleged red line crossing as their justification. For a detailed discussion of these matters, with many key references, is to be found here, and still more exhaustively here.

[5] For the sake of brevity, I cut the original introduction for this post.  As it serves to contextualise the discussion (and the photo included) it is restored here for anyone interested:

< The government of Bashar Al-Assad has unswervingly sought to defeat the foreign-backed insurgents in Syria by all means necessary. In view of the destruction, death and displacement caused by the warfare, charges of disproportionality could stand to be answered. A proper judgement on such charges may one day be possible.

Those who wish to hasten the pressing of such charges might meanwhile be expected to share Assad’s interest in eliminating terrorism from the territory and in restoring the sway of legitimate government.

Yet, instead, we hear vociferous and repeated calls from a variety of Western PR outlets (which is what I fear so many media and non-governmental organisations are becoming) to pronounce him guilty of crimes against humanity. This could support a bid to sharpen the conflict so as to precipitate regime change. What would result is unclear, except any new regime would be more accommodating to the Western and Gulf states that are backing the Islamist fighters. Those fighters have controlled the areas they have captured by abducting, raping, trafficking, beheading people at will, preventing children going to school or the sick receiving treatment, restricting access to food, restricting freedom of movement, and generally disregarding human rights and laws of war. To wish their rule on the Syrian people would, in my opinion, be evil. At the very least, contemplation of it should serve to inject some balance into the assessment of the government’s failings and of how best to ward off crimes against humanity.>

Posted in Channel 4, human rights, journalism, media, propaganda, Syria, Uncategorized, war | Leave a comment

A Theory of Bullshit: Introduction

 

“we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory.”  Harry Frankfurt

 

Princeton philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt, writing On Bullshit, bestowed academic respectability on the subject. His analysis served to show that while bullshit often involves lying, the two things are not the same: the bullshitter ‘does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.’

Indifference towards the truth can be a very great enemy indeed. And that is why I find myself writing the book that is being introduced here.[1]

Frankfurt alerted us to the need for a theory of bullshit, and I believe the need may be even greater than he suggested. His analytical focus was on what we may call the common-or-garden variety. The braggadocio of the locker room Lothario, for instance, would be a typical and redolent case. Frankfurt was certainly also concerned about how advertisers and PR people, for instance, can widely spread the stuff in sophisticated and elaborate ways, but he did not draw any particular distinctions between their practices and those of the individual braggart. Nor did he attend specifically to the phenomena associated with what we might call serious bullshit.

Frankfurt’s analysis focused on general features common to the various kinds of bullshit we encounter, and I consider his results sound. But I shall propose that we can adjust our analytical lens to reveal interesting differences between varieties. Frankfurt at one point observes that bullshit is not designed or crafted, but merely dumped. This, at a certain level of analysis is true.[2] Nevertheless, looking more closely, forensic scatology can reveal substantial differences between samples at more elemental levels of composition. Less figuratively, my point is that we should look more closely at how bullshit can be deployed to a variety of effects in different settings by means of alterations in its internal discursive structures.

But that sounds rather abstract. So let me illustrate just how significant the analysis of bullshit might be.

In 2003, a US-led military coalition went to war on Iraq. The consequences in terms of destruction, suffering, chaos and lives lost have been horrific. The onset of these hostilities was justified by a specific lie, namely, that there was evidence of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) ready for deployment in Iraq. However, that particular lie – momentous as it was – might be seen as but part of a longer and more involved story. One might say it was a bullshit story that had led to attention being placed on Iraq in the first place, given that the ostensible provocation for US retaliation against terrorists from the Middle East – i.e. the attacks of 9/11 – involved no Iraqis, with those actually involved being largely from Saudi Arabia (and having anyway somewhat unclear loyalties).

Is such an egregious offence against humanity appropriately described as bullshit? Does using the term in such a serious context not risk trivialising the matter? Having reflected on these questions, my view is that the lack of seriousness – the atrocious lack of human feeling, integrity or honesty – resides with those who actually deploy bullshit as a strategy for achieving their ends. To call it as it is makes stark the contempt they show for humanity in using bullshit justifications for genocidal actions. In fact, every crime against humanity has a bullshit rationale, for there is no conceivable lie that could rationally or morally justify it. Those who cynically send our fellow humans to kill and destroy other humans are deserving of no better description than bullshitters. If they are also deserving of much worse, I leave its elaboration for others.

What, though, can we hope to learn from studying bullshit on a grand scale? Frankfurt  provides a crucial insight, namely, that the key pragmatic feature of bullshit is aiming to deceive about what you are up to. We need to develop this insight further, however, since Frankfurt does not engage in discussion of what particular kinds of thing a bullshitter might ‘really be up to’. Deception about what one is up to, on a grand scale, and especially if intended to endure for some time, can be expected to involve deployment of a variety of sophisticated strategies.

In order to detect and analyse these, we need a conceptual framework that enables us to differentiate varieties of bullshit.

At the outset, it is helpful to distinguish two very general categories of intention involved in deception. (Although Frankfurt is well aware of both, he does not call particular attention to the difference between them.) The difference I shall refer to in terms of proactive vs reactive bullshit. One common intention in bullshitting is to draw some advantage towards oneself or one’s business, say, by seeming somehow to be more important or alluring than might otherwise appear. The general kind of intention here would be manifest in what we might call proactive bullshit. We can distinguish this as a category from what we might correspondingly refer to as reactive bullshit. Paradigmatically, this is what people may engage in when making excuses for failing to meet some expectation others have of them. (Tellingly, Frankfurt points out how people might find bullshit a more generally convenient means of evading blame or responsibility than lying would be.)

Now one can certainly notice similarities in the intents of bullshit as bragging and bullshit as excuse-making: it is like the similarity between trying to look good and trying not to look bad. However, the circumstances in which the bullshitter finds the one rather than the other called for have a noticeable difference. In the proactive mode, the bullshitter calls the shots, so to speak, and has quite free rein to decide what the story’s to be; in reactive mode, with the story told and thus opened to questions, the bullshitter is on the back foot inasmuch as there is the constraint of maintaining consistency of any added information with what has already been said.

This difference, I shall later show, is fundamental in understanding different strategies of bullshit deployment on the grand scale. A key point to have in mind from the outset, though, is that the bullshitter in proactive mode has greater freedom of action than in reactive mode. In proactive mode, the bullshitter has something of a blank canvass, he is free to tell pretty much any story with the constraint only of heeding items of general knowledge that might be available to a sceptical hearer. Just as long as the bullshitter refrains from making claims that are manifestly preposterous on the basis of common experience, he has a lot of leeway for making stories up. In fact, a particularly skilful storyteller might even be able to get away with preposterous claims if he can build up to them from a good basis of shared understandings and seduce the listener to follow him into his imagined world.

The proactive bullshitter composes a narrative. However, he will know that what can be composed can also be decomposed. A story that involves any departures from truth – i.e. what can be confirmed by experience or by reason – is ultimately discoverable.[3] So although he may be indifferent as to which elements of his story are true and which not, he must, as a pragmatic matter, ensure that the receivers of the story do not discover its untruths, or, if they do, can be coaxed not to worry too much about them. This can involve quite some effort and planning when the trick is attempted on the grand scale.

So I demur somewhat from Frankfurt’s remark that bullshit is not the kind of thing that is carefully crafted, because I believe it can be. And how it can be will prove to be a matter of quite some interest when we come to look at cases involving the rise and fall of a bullshit story.

Next time, From Theory to Practice: Suppose you were to be tasked with achieving a major goal – say, a foreign policy goal – and you had to ensure that the world at large did not know exactly what you were up to. How would you go about it?

Hunters-Shoot-the-Wall-Street-Bull-48153

(Picture source: Freaking News)

[1] My plan is to produce a small book intended for a general readership. It will be, as announced here, A Theory of Bullshit, and will include some basic conceptual tools for bullshit diagnostics. In the preparation I shall be presenting each short chapter as a blog installment, and look forward to getting comments from readers that will help improve the final version. (Something that greatly heartened me in response to my recent blogs on communications about Syria was the quality of comment received. It also materially led me to explore new avenues. When I wrote the initial blog on MSF I had no plans to continue writing in that area, but it was thanks to readers comments that I got drawn into engagement with Amnesty International too, and then Channel 4. So who knows where this book will go. I have a plan, but it may change!) So please feel free to give feedback – it will be gratefully received and acknowledged.

[2] ‘Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped. It may have a more or less coherent shape, or it may not, but it is in any case certainly not wrought.  The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves, then, a certain inner strain. Thoughtful attention to detail requires discipline and objectivity.’

[3] This is because of what we may call the natural entropy of lies (a topic to be discussed later on).

Posted in bullshit, disinformation, journalism, media, political philosophy, propaganda, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

BBC Panorama As Propaganda? Controversy over Saving Syria’s Children

Propaganda is not easy to define. Nor can we always straightforwardly identify cases of it.[1] But we can distinguish propaganda as a category of activity from that of journalism.

There is some functional overlap, of course, since both activities involve communicating topical material as compellingly as possible. Similarities can be bracketed, though, as they can when distinguishing, say, an ambulance from a tank.

In principle the difference is clear. A journalist starts the day with a blank notepad and goes out to investigate what has been going on; she comes back with a report that she could not have anticipated producing at daybreak. A propagandist, by contrast, starts the day with a message that has to be conveyed and his task is to produce a report that most persuasively conveys that message.

Whatever overlap there may be in practice between these two kinds of activity, the categorical distinction itself seems perfectly clear.

Does the BBC have a clear and operative understanding of the distinction? Yes, and demonstrated it in a report from 6 June 2011 on the ‘Dark Arts of Propaganda’ in Libya. The report shows a press event set in a hospital featuring a victim of an alleged missile strike. The BBC reporter, however, takes the camera behind the scenes and puts questions to some witnesses who reveal the whole event to have been staged, with the victim having been otherwise injured and the missile strike being a fabrication. Moving freely on the ground, the BBC thereby engaged in journalism and exposed a piece of propaganda.

Consider now the Panorama programme at the centre of a controversy which does not look like going away.[2] Saving Syria’s Children – a documentary broadcast in 2013 – features a scenario very similar to the Libya report, namely, a hospital in a conflict zone featuring victims of an alleged airstrike. It contains scenes that are reminiscent of the Libya hospital scene. In fact, something that has struck a number of viewers is that some of the scenes do not seem very realistic.[3] Could they have been staged?

In the BBC’s Libya report, the staging and fakery involved in setting up the hospital scene is called out by the reporter on the ground because he is able to mill about in the crowd and put questions to witnesses there. Engaged in journalism, he has exposed an attempt at propaganda. In the Panorama documentary, by contrast, we get no glimpse like that behind the scenes. In fact, a request by another TV producer recently to view the rushes of the Panorama film was denied by the BBC. In other words, not only did we not see behind the scenes, we have not even been allowed to see the scene itself in its unadorned context.

Masked doctor to upload

A fact beyond dispute is that a piece of the BBC Panorama film has been manipulated. A scene where a doctor describes a crucial fact of an alleged airstrike has been broadcast in two different versions, each with a different audio track. We hear different words in the two versions of the same video. The doctor is wearing a facemask, so we cannot see her lips, but we know for a fact that in at least one version she was not saying what the BBC broadcast. This alone requires explanation. She is talking about a matter of critical importance – whether or not chemical weapons had been deployed – which was a ‘red line’ drawn by the president of the USA for triggering an escalation of warfare.

I do not speculate as to what the doctor actually said, or why she may have said different things; I do not claim to know whether or not that scene or any other part of the Panorama film was staged or misleadingly constructed. But I do think these are questions that are reasonably asked.

I think the BBC can reasonably be asked to apply the same journalistic standards to the Panorama scenes as it applied in its Libya report. It is not possible retrospectively to have a reporter roam around the set and interview witnesses. It is possible, however, to see the raw footage, the ‘rushes’, of the scenes broadcast. By making these available, the BBC could reassure the growing number of concerned viewers that what was broadcast was a good faith representation of what was happening on the ground.

Yet the BBC has not been anxious to show good faith in this matter. Repeated requests for further information about the making of the programme have been batted back. A request under the Freedom of Information Act by Robert Stuart failed, both at first hearing and at appeal.[4] But I think the concluding words of the appeal judge are worth pondering:

The law is very clear. The BBC’s status under FOIA recognises the importance of the freedom to communicate and express and receive ideas and information which is enshrined in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and FOIA excludes such material from its regime in order to protect journalism and art from state control.’

I think if you ask the average man or woman on the proverbial Clapham Omnibus they might say that revealing the unedited footage is what journalism involves, as the BBC showed us in the Libya report; withholding contextual evidence serves only a propaganda interest. Therefore concealing the unedited footage is not journalism and so cannot be excluded from the purview of the Freedom of Information Act.[5]  So Jo Public could be forgiven for thinking that a request to see the rushes of the programme would not be covered by an exemption to Freedom of Information. Journalism would be distinguished from propaganda in striving to make them public.

Meanwhile, it may strike people as somewhat ironic to see the BBC’s right to withhold evidence being defended on the grounds of an exemption intended to protect journalism from state control.

[1] In fact, some say that good propaganda, functionally speaking, is undetectable as such. Furthermore, propaganda might be regarded as unobjectionable or even good, evaluatively speaking, if it is used, for instance, in public service statements about eating healthily or driving safely.

[2] A particularly tenacious critic is Robert Stuart, whose case against Panorama is set out in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2wtt4LbWl84. A number of others have publicly shared his concerns, including, most recently, TV producer Victor Lewis-Smith, who, having his request to view rushes of the documentary refused by the BBC, publicly tore up a contract he was about to sign with the corporation, indicating the possibility of producing a documentary on the case against the bona fides of the BBC documentary.

[3] One sceptical viewer has posted a very brief clip from the documentary with the simple litmus test question for other viewers: Is this FAKE or REAL?

[4] Robert Stuart notes: ‘Following a hearing on 24 November 2016 the First-tier Tribunal (General Regulatory Chamber) has dismissed my appeal against the decision of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to uphold the BBC’s rejection of my Freedom of Information request for material relating to the September 2013 BBC One Panorama programme ‘Saving Syria’s Children’.’ The text of the Tribunal’s decision is reproduced at https://bbcpanoramasavingsyriaschildren.wordpress.com/2016/12/16/saving-syrias-children-tribunal-upholds-bbcs-rejection-of-foi-request/

The initial approach to the tribunal failed on the grounds that ‘the request is for information held for the purposes of journalism and that the BBC was not obliged to comply with Parts I to V of the Act”. The appeal failed because the appellant had not shown those grounds to be mistaken. The appeal judgement spelled out that ‘he had not provided grounds for appeal which explained why he considered the ICO was “wrong in law i.e. the ICO was wrong to conclude that the information was held for the purposes of journalism, art or literature.” She directed that he provide “any reasons that he says the information he sought was/is not held by the BBC for purposes of journalism, art or literature”.’

The judgement refers to this as a ‘clear instruction’ that the Appellant had failed to comply with. It seems to me that the instruction could be followed by developing the point I suggested above. The only reason to exclude the rushes from FOI availability have to do with the antithesis of journalism; journalism, as the Libya example illustrates, involves revealing and interrogating sources, including rooting about in the context and talking to witnesses.

[5] The Tribunal mentioned that the whole of BBC output could be regarded as protected, according to a precedent, but I think that has to be hard to maintain in light of all that has already come to light about the corporation.

Posted in BBC, disinformation, journalism, media, propaganda, Syria, Uncategorized, war | 6 Comments

Women’s Protection in Syria: Stop Support For Terrorists!

A ‘new report by the London School of Economics’ (LSE), so announced the British press – The Times, The Daily Mail and The Daily Mirror – describes sexual crimes against women in Syrian prisons. It alleges these to be a matter of state policy. Published just ahead of Geneva talks about a political settlement in Syria, the press interpreted it as supporting renewed calls for regime change.

The paper provides no new grounds for that conclusion, however. In fact, its sweeping allegations obscure good reasons why, under present circumstances, a responsible approach to the problem of sexual violence in Syria would involve supporting the government against the terrorist insurgents.

syrian-christian-women-fighters-4

Syrian Christians

United Nations research had previously found (in 2015 and again in 2016) that while some conflict-related sexual violence was perpetrated by state personnel, ‘non-State actors account for the vast majority of incidents’.[1] The UN made clear that efforts to defeat groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda, as the Syrian government is committed to, ‘are an essential part of the fight against conflict-related sexual violence.’ Such groups use sexual violence as part of their strategy to spread terror among those that oppose their ideology. They engage in trafficking of women and slavery. They drive the displacement of women who, then, ‘remain at high risk, even when they reach the supposed refuge of neighbouring countries.’

Marie Forestier, the LSE paper’s author, complains that the UN paid ‘disproportionate attention’ to the terrorist groups as perpetrators of sexual violence in Syria. She wants to highlight crimes on the government side, and she relays some horrific allegations about some individual cases. This illustrates specific experiences of a problem that the UN had signaled. However, while harrowing in themselves, these testimonies cannot speak to the comparative scale of the problem.[2] Forestier therefore does not show the UN’s concerns about the egregious sexual violence of the terrorist insurgents to be disproportionate. Furthermore, her interviews relate to experiences from a period – 2012 and 2013 – that is earlier than covered by the UN reports of 2015 and 2016. Forestier herself admits that accusations of sexual violence on the government’s side were ‘most frequent from late 2011 to 2013, in disputed areas such as the Damascus suburbs, and in central and coastal governorates … with a peak in 2012, and comparatively fewer cases in 2014.’ She thereby shows the situation was worse in places where the government had to fight insurgents and improved when the government regained control. In light of her own admissions, it seems perverse to cite limited older evidence in criticizing considered conclusions of fuller and more up-to-date reports.

The perversity is heightened with unwarranted generalizations in the present continuous tense. Press coverage has, unsurprisingly, transmitted the message that the most shocking details of individual allegations from up to five years ago capture what is occurring on a general and continuing basis today. Forestier herself even makes demonstrably false general claims in the present tense. For instance, she says: ‘According to an estimate by United Nations investigators, Syrian security forces detain tens of thousands of people at any one time.’ However, the source she cites for this claim says no such thing.[3]

Some of her most damaging claims are simply inexplicable, as when she says: ‘According to testimony, the overwhelming majority of men committing rapes have been State forces.’ This extraordinary claim flies in the face of the palpable evidence and reports of the UN. Bizarrely, the source Forestier cites for it is an article on ‘general data on sexual violence by state forces’ attained for 129 other conflicts, not including Syria, and during a period (1989-2009) prior to the outbreak of war in Syria.[4]

The LSE paper’s headline message thus misrepresents what is actually shown regarding the extent of the government’s responsibility for sexual violence. Buried within its text are admissions that the paper should only ‘be considered as a starting point for further research’ and that ‘it is impossible to conclude that sexual violence by regime forces is a mass phenomenon.’ Yet this did not stop Forestier making such damaging accusations as that ‘rape can be considered as part of a general policy from the authorities’ (p.12).[5]

Regardless of lack of evidence, she seems determined to convey a message of rape and sexual violence being state policy approved at the highest levels.[6] Yet she admits: ‘The decision to resort to sexual violence (or tolerate it) seems to have fallen under the regional level or even the branch and military unit level’. ‘No information indicates that high-level officials in Damascus ordered rapes’ and ‘the President or high level security officials probably didn’t give explicit orders’.

She rightly notes that ‘commanders may be prosecuted where they know or should have known of the abuses and failed to take action to stop them.’ She also correctly observes that ‘ending impunity is central in preventing sexual violence.’ I would add that ending impunity, like bringing the problem itself under control, requires well functioning institutions. The Syrian government is evidently aware of this, and, under difficult conditions, has sought to improve its systems for the protection of women and children, as welcomed by the UN OHCHR. But the good functioning of institutions is favoured by peaceful conditions rather than by war.

One does not have to be an enthusiast for the present government to recognize its legitimacy and the simple fact that it is uniquely well-placed as things stand now, and foreseeably, to protect ordinary men, women and children against violent threats.

veil-off-for-blog

Freed from ISIS

A realistic general presumption has to be that rape and sexual violence tends be more common in war than in peacetime.[7] That is a reason – on top of so many others – why war should be avoided. A country that finds its territory turned into a battleground has to reckon with sexual violence being more prevalent than in peacetime, while its resources to tackle the problem are diverted and diminished. A government that has to defend its people against armed insurgents, particularly when these routinely engage in sexual violence, faces extraordinary challenges. That does not absolve it of responsibility for ensuring good conduct by its own forces. The practical ability of a government to maintain discipline, however, is not enhanced by having to engage on many fronts with ruthless opposition.

Realistically, and morally, the best way to avoid rape in war is to avoid war itself. I cannot believe that Marie Forestier would disagree on this general point, but I am less sure what she thinks with regard to the specific case of Syria, or even whether she has fully thought it through.[8] The thrust of her argument would support continued efforts by foreign powers, exercised through terrorist proxies on the ground, to depose the government of Syria, something that could only worsen further still the problem of sexual violence.

… [11]

It may incidentally be worth noting that the Syrian army prominently features all female units, including the famed Lionesses for National Defence unit of the elite Republican Guard.[12] Western commentators who note the propaganda value of this also grant that its success reflects the wider social solidarity that has made the Syrian Arab Army so resilient. As a French commentator observes, ‘The war in Syria is a face-off between two societal structures and Assad is showing that, in his system, women have an important role, even in the defence forces’.[13] If the Syrian government sees the propaganda value of promoting women’s equality, we might reasonably suppose it would see the irrationality of undoing such reputational gains by pursuing a delinquent policy of the kind Forestier alleges.

The fact is that what people widely believe throughout Syria – in Arab areas as in Kurdish – is that the overwhelming problem of sexual violence, like that of extremist violence more generally, comes from ISIS and other terrorists that violate, torture, enslave, traffic and oppress women. This is consistent with the UN findings. Forestier’s allegations are consistent only with the foreign drive for ‘regime change’.

For anyone genuinely concerned to deal with sexual violence occurring in – and occasioned by – conflict situations, a central preventive strategy is not starting a war in the first place, and not prolonging a war needlessly once started. It certainly means not intervening in a war on the side of those inflicting by far and away the most extensive and egregious sexual crimes.

In short, if the government had been supported in its efforts to defeat the insurgents, a great deal of sexual violence would have been avoided. Forestier’s claims, seen in this light, in being unfounded, are counterproductive and irresponsible. The view she opposes has a coherence hers lacks. It also has basic morality on its side. The problem with Forestier’s paper is not simply that it is poor research and writing.[14] The real concern is that, in being publicly promoted, it has been fed into the narrative beyond academia that would continue seeking to destabilise Syria (and the wider Middle East) and to prolong conflict against the Syrian government. One effect of this would be to prolong the circumstances in which sexual violence continues unabated on that territory.

civilians-freed-for-blog

Civilians freed by Syrian Army

[1] United Nations Security Council, Conflict-related sexual violence Report of the Secretary-General 23 March 2015: https://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2015/203. United Nations Security Council Report of the Secretary-General on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, 20 April 2016, S/2016/361 http://www.peacewomen.org/node/94106.

[2] I do not take propose to take issue with any of Forestier’s reporting of testimonies, even though her methodology is unclear. (For instance, she mentions that three interviews with survivors ‘were excluded because they seemed exaggerated or false’ yet she does not explain how she decided whose word to give how much credence to, particularly in cases where she was speaking through a translator via phone to someone she hadn’t met.)

[3] The source she cites is UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Independent International Commission
of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, A/ HRC/31/68, 11 February 2016, http://www. ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/ CoISyria/A-HRC-31-68.pdf. (Having checked that source I find the only mention of thousands of people refers to ISIS crimes. I could not find any statement remotely resembling her claim, and I would readily correct the record here if she can direct me to it with a page reference.)

[4] Dara Kay Cohen and Ragnhild Nordas, “Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict: Introducing the SVAC dataset, Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict: Introducing the SVAC dataset, 1989−2009”, Journal of Peace Research 51(3) (2014), 418-428.

[5] This assumption is manifest, too, in her claim – made much of in the press reporting of her paper – that sexual assault in detention was so routine that contraception was supplied. Damning as this may be, assuming it is true, it does not self-evidently suggest that those assaults were part of a policy as distinct from an atrocious practice. It could in fact be taken to suggest a desire of perpetrators to prevent evidence of violations coming to light.  A related claim involves the testimony of a victim that her attacker used Vaseline. Forestier takes this, along with the contraception, to ‘indicate that rapes followed a regular pattern that involved some degree of organisation and were part of a broader state policy of widespread repression against the civil population.’ Since the organization required is that of a visit to a pharmacy, and we can have no idea how widespread the practice was, we cannot simply infer what Forestier claims about a ‘broader state policy’.

[6] At one point she asserts that ‘when soldiers or militiamen raped women during military operations, this was part of the attack against their adversaries and their relatives. Thus, rape can be considered as part of a general policy from the authorities.’ But the inference stated after her ‘thus’ is a non sequitur: she provides no reason to think such attacks follow from a policy rather than opportunism or vindictiveness.

[7] The presumption has to be defeasible, but it seems clear that simply to presume the contrary would be imprudent. For a discussion see e.g. Doris E. Buss, ‘Rethinking “Rape as a Weapon of War, Feminist Legal Studies (2009) 17.2: 145-163.

[8] Her puzzling take on the situation is illustrated by a claim like this: ‘the Syrian government has sought to increase antagonism between communities’ and ‘to frame the conflict as a fight between Alawites and Sunnis instead of a struggle for democracy.’ Yet the government owes its resilience precisely to a longstanding and conscious strategy of defusing sectarian tendencies. (The government has consistently framed the conflict as an attack on the secular multi-faith state by primarily Islamist jihadists.) Furthermore, however much a desire for greater democracy may originally have motivated the political opposition, the conflict that has ensued was taken over by jihadists committed to imposing the most anti-democratic regime imaginable.

[11] This passage originally mentioned the example of the Kurdish women’s units and has been edited on advice from early readers. (Original 1 March 2017; amended 2 March 2017)

[12] Daily Mail 26 March 2015 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3011838/Syria-s-female-tank-drivers-Battalion-800-women-commandos-fierce-clashes-rebels-line-Damascus.html#ixzz4ZnIjB3tT

[13] Fabrice Balanche, quoted by France 24, 2 April 2015: http://www.france24.com/en/20150402-syria-women-soldiers-assad-army-propaganda

[14] Given its status as a Working Paper, the academic community is aware that Forestier’s claims have not been peer-reviewed. The wider world does not observe such niceties. The Daily Mirror, The Daily Mail and The Times did not. Most tweeters do not. They all present it as coming from the prestigious LSE. Which is fair enough, given that it features conspicuously on the LSE website. Since LSE has promoted this paper, there is a case for saying they should own it and answer for it. If my argument in this post is correct, there is a case for suggesting they should retract it.  

Posted in disinformation, global justice, Syria, Uncategorized, war | 15 Comments

NGOs Fabricating Evidence Against Syria

Last week, Amnesty International published a report that was severely criticised for literally fabricating evidence to support implausible accusations against the Syrian government.[1]  The report included a project of ‘Forensic Architecture’ that served in guiding the imagination as to the horrors that might be perpetrated in a building used for torture and execution. Computerised modelling of this kind may have its uses, but it clearly has limitations when it comes to determining who may have done what in a building. A computer can only simulate on the basis of inputs. The inputs come from elsewhere, and they may or may not be reliable or appropriately detailed.[2]

This week, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) announced that they too have been commissioning  research in Forensic Architecture. This might seem a strange thing for an organisation of doctors to be doing.  Still, their ostensible concern is that the bombing of hospitals – something contrary to the law of war and human morality – should not go unrecorded nor, ultimately, unpunished. An added difficulty is that ‘often, the only real redress available to MSF is to publicly denounce perpetrators of bombings in the hope that the damage to their image will incite them to modify their practices.’ Denunciations may have little enough effect, particularly when even the grounds for them is uncertain. Where there is a known threat of danger to the staff running a hospital, MSF prudently does not even attempt to operate.  The organisation does sometimes offer support of some kind to medics who do work in war zones, however, like the province of Idlib in Syria.

Just over a year ago, the MSF-supported Ma’arat Al Numan hospital in Idlib province was hit by an airstrike. At the time, ‘Dr Mego Terzian, president of MSF’s French section, publicly accused the Russian-Syrian coalition of being responsible for the bombings – a conviction based on an analysis of the context, the military forces present and testimonies from Syrian civilians (some known to MSF for some time) who were at the scene.’ However, the accusation sparked ‘much heated debate within the MSF Movement. On what grounds is MSF accusing Russia and Syria? How reliable are the witness statements it is using to support its allegations?’ (See also my recent article on How We Were Misled About Syria by MSF.)

Now, MSF tells us, ‘The Forensic Architecture team has conducted an investigation based on videos and photographs circulating on social media, taken by medical personnel, activists and ordinary citizens.’

And?

‘While their investigation does not provide solid evidence, it does confirm MSF’s conviction as to the responsibility of Syrian and Russian forces in the bombing of the hospital in Ma’arat Al Numan.’

So, no evidence, and yet a confirmation of a ‘conviction’?

I think perhaps the research team promoting this new use of computerised modelling should make clear the limitations of its proper use. The recent case of Amnesty International appealing to the same source of non-evidence highlights an overreach that the researchers now risk seeming complicit in. The timing of the release of these dramatic pieces of non-evidence hardly looks accidental to any serious observer. Do the people at Forensic Architecture really want to be seen as partners in a continued drive to destabilise the Middle East?

As for MSF, and this goes for Amnesty International too, their publications on Syria sometimes read like the worst kind of tabloid journalism. Exaggerated headline claims backed up by no supporting evidence, and with crucial caveats, if included at all, tucked away where they are unlikely to register with any but the most cautious readers.

Is there something going on in the direction of those organisations that is not quite what ordinary supporters among the public believe?

 

[1] On the fabrication see Tony Cartalucci. The report was critically analysed by Rick Sterling as well as Moon of Alabama. The former UK Ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford, who had earlier visited the prison in question, stated the report ‘would not stand scrutiny’. A former prisoner there, who remains an opponent of Assad, stated that while atrocious things certainly occurred, the scale of Amnesty’s claims was preposterous. Further critical discussions are cited here.

[2] MSF say, ‘Investigations use amateur photographs and video footage to help reconstruct the “crime scene”‘. Specifically, they add, ‘Using cartography, image analysis, and legal and architectural expertise, research agency Forensic Architecture collects and analyses images taken of a crime committed by a State to establish the facts and ascertain who was responsible.’ An obvious question concerns the difference between establishing the facts of physical changes undergone by a structure and attributing responsibility for causing them, since the latter challenge necessarily involves input of extra-architectural data.

 

Posted in Amnesty International, MSF, Syria, Uncategorized, war | Leave a comment

Amnesty International on Syria – at it again!

Writing recently about how we were misled by Amnesty International’s reports on Syria, I was criticised – for using the past tense.

This week Amnesty International has published a ‘new’ report – Syria: The Human Slaughterhouse – that presents no new evidence of the deaths it purports to be documenting. Even the BBC’s take on it makes clear: ‘it does not have evidence of executions taking place since December 2015’. The publication repeats previous claims about the years 2011-2015, and extrapolates.[1]

Such grave allegations need to be taken very seriously, but that starts with being scrupulous about their basis.

Previously I showed how Amnesty International did not follow its own prescribed research guidelines for earlier reports; it did not do so this time either.[2]

Those guidelines were those set out by Secretary General, Salil Shetty, and I think he could give a clearer steer on the need to observe them. In an interview, it was put to Shetty that accusations of bias are sometimes levelled at Amnesty International. His reply was that, since the organisation is criticised from all sides, ‘it must be doing something right’. This facile reply is fallacious. I can think of one controversial Amnesty representative, for instance, who has been accused of making unjustified claims against the governments of both Israel and Syria. I suspect many people who check will think he is wrong in one of those cases, although not necessarily the same one, without thereby assuming either he must be right in the other. I myself would simply regard him as simply insufficiently reliable.

Even if it is in fact true that the organisation is doing ‘something’ right, I do not think Amnesty should be content that this is good enough. I would want to insist that Amnesty needs to be tenacious in ensuring not to get it wrong. Its practice in Syria of extrapolating on the basis of conjectures made following conversations with representatives of the opposition is not guaranteed to ensure that.

What I think the grassroots supporters of Amnesty International need above all to be concerned about is what the organisation is trying to achieve with this new publication. With more constructive possibilities of international involvement following the end of the siege of Aleppo, what is the reason for reviving attempts to demonise the Syrian government?

Whatever excesses any parties need eventually to be held to account for, the concern of Amnesty International is supposed to be with human beings, and their interest lies overwhelmingly in achieving peace – not in stoking the embers of the war.

 

[1] A critical discussion of this is available at http://www.moonofalabama.org/2017/02/amnesty-report-hearsay.html

[2] For the 2012 report, which covers the first year of the five referred to in the new publication, I showed, point by point, that the report admits failing to fulfil some of the research criteria and fails to show it has met any of them. Substantially the same verdict applies to what is said here for 2012-2015; regarding the period 2015-2016, which many readers will understandably, but mistakenly, assume the ‘new’ evidence relates to, no evidence at all is even claimed to be presented.

Posted in Amnesty International, Syria, Uncategorized, war | 4 Comments

How We Were Misled About Syria: Channel 4 News

Difficulties faced news organisations attempting to cover events in the war in Syria, particularly in the eastern part of Aleppo when under siege. Western journalists had stopped even trying to enter that area for fear of being kidnapped, or worse, at the hands of one or other of the armed factions holding the area. International relief agencies and NGO’s were not to be found on the ground either, for the same reasons.

This is one of the two main problems for media coverage of Syria that Eva Bartlett highlighted at a UN press conference in November 2016 when talking about her first hand experience of conditions in Aleppo.[1] Asked by a journalist from a mainstream publication why she seemed to be challenging ‘all these absolutely documentable facts that we’ve seen from the ground’, she pointed out that he was referring to a hearsay narrative, not facts, because ‘sources on the ground? You don’t have them.’

Channel 4 News editor Ben de Pear had earlier in 2016 grappled with this problem, of “safe access denied to objective independent journalists from outside”, and had devised a strategy for circumventing it. He commissioned coverage from a Syrian woman called Wa’ad Alkateab who could move safely in the opposition-held area. She went on to make a series of films – Inside Aleppo – that, thanks to the prominence Channel 4 gave them, became influential in forming public opinion about the circumstances in Aleppo.

This neat side-stepping of the first problem, however, put Channel 4’s coverage at risk of succumbing to the second problem highlighted by Eva Bartlett: any testimony coming out of opposition-held areas has to be considered compromised. For we have to assume that whatever is reported from the opposition-held area is only what those with the guns will permit. So the presumption must be that information coming out is unlikely to be the whole truth and may contain untruths.

hamza-five-years-fighting

For some reason, this presumption – which follows from the most basic principles of credible journalism – seems at times to have been suspended by Channel 4 News in its coverage of Syria. It entered no caveats about the reports and tended to treat their content – without corroboration or independent evidence – as if it had come from verified sources.[2] Channel 4 was thus knowingly complicit in promoting a narrative that was necessarily one-sided.

To take just one obvious example of partiality: Alkateab’s films prominently feature the medical facility where her husband Hamza Al-Khatib played a central role, and we hear repeatedly how the Syrian government and its Russian allies are bombing areas with civilians including the children they treat. What we would never know from these films is that there are many more hospitals in the larger part of Aleppo treating children and other civilians who are victims of rockets and mortars launched into residential areas by fighters from the opposition enclave in the eastern part.[3] These, moreover, can be corroborated.[4]

It should go without saying that a single individual will always have their own limited perspective; an individual with a strong ideological commitment who is deeply embedded with oppositional militants must be assumed to be partial. (The commitment may be sincere and held with good intention but this does not diminish the questions about its partiality.)

Role to play.jpg

This may be why people at Channel 4 responded in a particularly defensive manner to the simple moral force of Eva Bartlett’s cautionary words. They engaged in a rather disingenuous attempt to discredit her. An article published on their website, that merely took issue with one incidental in Bartlett’s account, was promoted by Channel 4 people – from Jon Snow and Ben de Pear down – as if it had disposed of her critique of mainstream coverage in Syria.[5] The article in fact made no comment on her main points.

Two major claims Bartlett had made – that there were no independent news sources on the ground in Aleppo and that any sources used there should be regarded as compromised – were incontrovertibly true. The factual truth of the first was clearly acknowledged by Channel 4 itself, as we noted. The truth of the second is of a normative kind that would be accepted by any decent journalist under the circumstances prevailing in Aleppo.

What is really at issue, therefore, if we assume agreement about the basic standards of reputable journalism, is whether anyone has an effective reply to her main substantive argument about coverage of the war in Syria, namely, that it involves the promotion of a narrative that lacks a basis in verifiable fact. Bartlett claims that the mainstream media have systematically occluded an entire side of the Syrian story, and they have done so in a way that supports the interests of the NATO and Gulf states that were pressing for ‘regime change’ in Syria; in doing this, they have supported the visitation of a devastating war upon the Syrian people that has been unnecessary and unjustified. The mainstream media are thereby complicit in an egregious contravention of the laws of war and human morality.

Channel 4’s defensiveness on the subject indicates that they saw the charge applied to them as a part of the mainstream consensus. But if they were going to answer it, why did they not play what should have been their strongest card? If Bartlett’s claim is that people on the ground contest the mainstream narrative, why not appeal to contrary testimony from the ground that supports it? They have the Alkateab videos, after all, and these repeatedly show people injured or bereaved by bombings. The thing is, what those videos show is something that is not in dispute: people are being killed by war, and it is difficult to run medical facilities in conditions of war. By contriving to suggest that Bartlett is denying this, which she is obviously not, they evade the real challenge.

In fact, a major evasiveness is at the heart of the series Inside Aleppo. If we bear in mind that the films are shot in an area of the town that is being besieged by the Syrian army and the Russian air force, then we realise this is because there is considerable military resistance being put up. Yet in the Alkateab films there is an eerie silence about the military forces on the ground around them. Although in the film of the couple and their baby entering Aleppo we catch sight of one of their companions carrying an AK47, the rest of the time we see nobody onscreen bearing any arms. Nor do we hear anything about any of the score or so of armed brigades, dominated by the militias of Al Nusra (Al Qaeda in Syria) that are controlling the town and holding at bay the combined military might of Syria and Russia. We do not even hear anything explicit about the so-called ‘moderate opposition’ that the mainstream media refer to.

moderate bakery bombers.png

As it happens, though, Channel 4 did make one film showing the ‘moderate opposition’ at work. It was billed as giving ‘a glimpse into why Syrian and Russian forces have so far been unable to re-take the whole of Aleppo.’[6] Up Close with the Rebels (released in October 2016) features an example of so-called ‘moderate rebels’ in action. In his voiceover, Krishnan Guru-Murthy introduces the action as “one small but famous victory, as rebels fought back against the forces of Bashar Al-Assad”. With this vicarious sharing of their glory, the Channel 4 man is in no doubt about who they are: they are “Islamist fighters”, he tells us, noting also that “many civilians in West Aleppo are frightened of these rebel fighters”, which would not be surprising given that they are “launching rockets into the western side of the city”. “This group is well equipped”, he adds, “paid for and supplied by Gulf States, mainly Qatar.”

I think we need to pause here. It appears that the film thereby illustrates, point by point, exactly what Bartlett has said about the anti-government forces being foreign-funded terrorists that the ordinary citizens of Syria want to be protected from. Guru-Murthy appears to be corroborating Bartlett’s account as against that promoted by Channel 4.

The manner of the reporting, though, is truly strange. It involves glorifying in the victory of jihadi terrorists while admitting that ordinary civilians in the greater part of Aleppo are in fear of these fighters. I literally cannot imagine what was going through the head of Guru-Murthy as he was saying all this out loud. Nor can I imagine how exactly he thinks the ordinary civilians trapped in the eastern part of Aleppo felt towards these and all the other fighters ruling their lives. After all, he and his colleagues dared not even set foot there.

Still, worse is to come. It relates to a story that shocked the world, in July 2016, when from Aleppo came news – and footage – of a group of Islamists severing the head off a twelve-year old boy with a small knife.[7] That group was Nour Al-Din Al-Zinki, and several of the men directly involved are clearly recognizable in photos that circulated the globe.

One of the men involved in decapitating the twelve-year-old features centre stage in Channel 4’s film.

That, then, is what you find if you actually get up close with the rebels. Channel 4, on being apprised that ordinary observant members of the public apparently knew, or cared, more about the people they were working with than its own news team did, hastily withdrew the video from its website. (I say hastily, as to my knowledge Channel 4 has issued neither apology nor explanation for sending out a news report and then retracting it after people may have relied on it.) The film remains readily accessible elsewhere on the internet – as does the harrowing footage of the decapitation.

The films by Alkateab remain on Channel 4’s catalogue, and it is to be noted that she was not responsible for the Nour Al-Din Al-Zinki footage. But a friend of hers was. Abdul Kader Habak was driving the car that brought Waad and her family into Aleppo. He, like her husband, is interviewed in her film. They presumably all enjoy the same protection.

I make no claim to know which individuals belong to which groups, armed or otherwise, in the ‘rebel-held’ area, but anyone curious enough to look at their public facebook and twitter feeds will see that Wa’ad and Hamza are passionately committed to the anti-government cause. They even use their own baby as a symbol of their struggle. None of this necessarily means their testimony is untrue. But Channel 4 was surprisingly uncritical in its showcasing of the material.[8]

aleppo-day

The truth or otherwise of stories from Channel 4’s sources in eastern Aleppo was to be put to the test in the final days of the siege. These saw intense tweeting from the rebels, and retweeting of it by the Channel 4 news team. ‘Massacre was imminent’, and eastern Aleppo was about to ‘fall’ to the merciless forces of the Syrian ‘regime’. These would probably be the ‘last messages’ before government forces ‘annihilated’ them in #holocaustaleppo. Channel 4 bought into this fully, even featuring a filmed ‘letter’ by Wa’ad which starts “Maybe this will be my last letter to you and the world…”.[9]

In the event, those same people would soon be tweeting again from Turkey or other rebel-held parts of Syria. Meanwhile, according to the kinds of observer that regard Eva Bartlett with respect – and according also to the copious footage showing it – the majority of the population of eastern Aleppo, reunited with the western part, celebrated their liberation, welcoming the Syrian army, and the Russians that followed with their sappers to clear buildings of mines and booby-traps left behind by the ‘moderate rebels’.

As the liberated city has started to rebuild and function again, the Western media have gone silent. Channel 4 no longer talks much about Aleppo. But if the news bandwagon may have moved on, real lives have been lost or changed forever as a result of a war that was unjustified and unnecessary. The rest of us must try and learn from such awful chains of events as led to the unspeakable carnage and displacement in Syria.

Most of us know nothing about Syria except what we can glean from the media – either mainstream news outlets or independent investigators on social media. We are not in a position to check facts as such. Yet we can assess the credibility of testimony, even if only by ascertaining whether it is internally consistent rather than self-contradictory. A fully self-consistent story is not guaranteed to correspond to the true facts, of course, but one that is internally inconsistent cannot be the whole or unalloyed truth.

An account of the circumstances in Aleppo, that was internally consistent during the siege, and vindicated by subsequent events, was provided by those few witnesses from the West who were on the ground. The testimony of Eva Bartlett is consistent with that of a number of other independent observers with first hand experience in Syria at this historic moment who show sides to the story closed off by the mainstream media. They include US Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, filmmaker Carla Ortiz, journalist Vanessa Beeley, peace campaigner Jan Oberg, and Virginia State Senator Richard Black.

These individuals, have in varying degrees and ways been vilified, patronised or ignored by mainstream outlets – deploying the low tactics of those who cannot win an argument by means of reason or evidence.  But why should news agencies even be in the business of making an argument?  What exactly is the social role and purpose of the press?

I have chosen to focus on Channel 4, of all the news outlets that promoted the orthodox narrative, for several reasons. Channel 4 has a better reputation among much of the public than some other news outlets: it is thought to have high journalistic standards, and since it also has a public service remit, people tend to expect its coverage to exhibit investigative integrity and objectivity. Yet with regard to its coverage of Syria, not merely did Channel 4 disappoint those expectations, it went the extra mile to reinforce a misleading narrative by commissioning a partisan filmmaker to produce its flagship series of programmes on the war in Syria.

In my opinion, the Channel 4 News team owe a collective apology to Eva Bartlett for suggesting she was discredited when the truth was quite otherwise. I also think that Channel 4 owe us, the public, a commitment to do better than this in future. As for what Channel 4 owes to the people of Syria? The harms of this war can never be made good. Harms of future wars may yet be mitigated or even avoided, and I believe the one thing Channel 4 can and should do is join the side of truth with those who are seeking ways to break up the monolithic deceptions that our communications are increasingly being submerged in.

beeley-bartlett-balloons

[1] Eva Bartlett speaking to United Nations Press Conference 9 December 2016: full version; short version featuring the claims discussed here.

[2] “During the summer we made a conscious decision to try and report what was happening in Syria, and particularly in Aleppo, on a daily basis. One person, Wa’ad al Kateab, has made this possible.” Ben de Pear, Channel 4 News, October 2016 http://insidealeppo.com/ It was never made especially clear in Channel 4 news reports on Aleppo how much they relied on this one source, and references to reports on the ground – while unattributed – were also often in the plural. Something to note, however, is that there was not necessarily a plurality of viewpoints coming out of the Aleppo Media Centre, which was the one functioning agency on the ground in eastern Aleppo. Other journalists used and referred to by channel four include Abdul Kader Habak (the cameraman on Up Close With The Rebels) and ‘a photographer for Reuters’ who I presume would be Abdalrhman Ismail, both of whom appear to move freely among militants. So while Wa’ad was possibly not the only source, there was still no meaningful corroboration since all sources accessed by Channel 4 should most safely be assumed to have been compromised in similar ways. Quite generally, Chanel 4 have tended to treat anti-government claims as true whereas they always voice scepticism in relation to claims on the other side, even on those rare occasions where they air them (as in Thomson example below) or the occasional interview, as with Jon Snow’s shameful haranguing of the Aleppo parliamentarian Fares Shehabi on 30 November 2016 https://www.channel4.com/news/aleppo-syrian-mp-fares-shehabi.

[3] For background and useful sources on this see Vanessa Beeley. ‘Channel 4 Joins CNN in Normalising Terrorism, Then Removes Their Own Video’, 21st Century Wire, 9 October 2016.

[4] Corroboration includes that of the Aleppo Medical Association. For background on the real situation of medical facilities across the whole of Aleppo, which is entirely occluded in the Channel 4 films, see for instance: Tim Anderson, ‘The Aleppo Hospital’ Smokescreen: Covering up Al Qaeda Massacres in Syria, Once Again’, Global Research, 9 May 2016; Eva Bartlett, ‘Western corporate media ‘disappears’ over 1.5 million Syrians and 4,000 doctorsSOTT 14 August 2016; Vanessa Beeley, ‘Journey To Aleppo Part II: The Syria Civil Defense & Aleppo Medical Association Are Real Syrians Helping Real Syrians’, Mint Press News, 27 September 2016.

[5] All Channel 4 in reality even attempted to debunk was an aside by Bartlett about how the White Helmets, in staging some of their videos, sometimes used the same actor more than once. Their article goes to great lengths to show there is reasonable doubt about that matter.

Channel 4 were not dishonest about the limited nature of their piece in its title: ‘Eva Bartlett’s Claims About Syrian Children’. The promotion of it by all the colleagues on the news team, however, presented it as a definitive ‘fact check’ or ‘debunking’ of Bartlett. And that is how it went out into the wider world. Representative – and influential – was the tweet of famous Channel 4 anchor Jon Snow on 21 December 2016 linking to an altered title ‘FactCheck: Eva Bartlett’s Syria Claims’, which transforms the narrowly appropriate original one into one that implies a more comprehensive ‘debunking’. He tweets: ‘Even Syria’s children are caught up in lies and propaganda: A remarkable fact check puts the record straight’. All the piece actually does is show there to be reasonable doubt about Bartlett’s claim that the White Helmets publicity featured some children on more than one occasion. Doubt on this score does not even affect her claim that some of the videos were staged (since staging can be done with different actors each time, obviously). On this more substantial claim, the Channel 4 piece does not say much, but it does seek to show that at least one of the White Helmets filmed rescues was genuine. While not disputing that some of their rescues will have been genuine, I would just note that the reasons Channel 4 give would not establish the case for the example they look at. They say this: ‘The long sequence in which rescuers [are shown] painstakingly clearing rubble away from around the girl suggests that it would have been difficult to fake this footage. Someone would have had to have buried a screaming child up to their chest in rubble and carefully assembled a large amount of heavy wreckage around and on top of her – an extraordinary logistical challenge and an extraordinary collective act of child abuse.’

Certainly, it would be an extraordinary collective act of child abuse. As for the logistical challenge, however, it is no more difficult to place some rubble around and above the child than it is to then pick it off. Of course, we ordinary people will recoil at the very thought of seeing this as simply a logistical challenge, because it is such an ‘extraordinary collective act of child abuse’. But we are not terrorists or obliged to work with them. It cannot be a rebuttal of Bartlett’s claims that the White Helmets are embedded with terrorists to show that for her claims to be credible they would have to act in ways that are consistent with terrorist acts. The problem of how children are used, abused and even weaponised by armed groups in the pay of NATO AND Gulf states is a very real one. That the White Helmets are paid from those sources is a matter of public record; that some of them bear arms is illustrated by various videos, including Channel 4’s own documentary Up Close With The Rebels, where, at 2:27, one of the jihadis is clearly seen sporting a jersey with white helmets logo.

Among the various dishonest tactics carefully used in connection with the attempt to discredit and isolate Bartlett is the use of this kind of statement: ‘Supporters of the Assad regime have variously accused the White Helmets of being puppets of western powers, peddlers of faked footage or even terrorist fighters posing as humanitarian workers, all of which the organisation vigorously denies.’ The fact is, anyone who studies the evidence now widely available in the public domain can reasonably infer that the White Helmets are indeed a tool of the western powers, that they have indeed issued faked footage, and that some of them do have demonstrable terrorist affiliations. One can infer these things without have any view at all about Assad. The Channel 4 piece flirts with dishonesty by implying that scepticism about the White Helmets is the preserve of dupes of Assad.

[6] ‘Published on 4 Oct 2016, 20:08 ‘This report, filmed by Syrian cameraman Abdul Kader Habak, gives a glimpse into why Syrian and Russian forces have so far been unable to re-take the whole of Aleppo.’ http://newsvideo.su/video/5313805

[7] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3697770/US-backed-Nour-al-Din-al-Zenki-behead-boy-accused-al-Quds-spy-Assad.html

[8] I am not the first to criticize Channel 4’s coverage of Aleppo. As well as Vanessa Beeley’s piece cited in n3, see also Daniel Margrain, ‘Syria: the Western media’s unending propaganda war’, Scisco Media 5 December 2016.

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H4H9xia3Mis&t=292s. Channel 4 cites ‘multiple reports of summary executions of civilians’ 13 Dec 2016 (https://www.channel4.com/news/inside-aleppo-latest-from-source-in-the-city), which presumably come from the same ‘activists on the ground’ that Jon Snow uncritically relays statements from in this item – https://www.channel4.com/news/aleppo-have-we-reached-the-endgame. In the same item, Alex Thomson includes an interview run by Russian TV where civilians leaving the east call the militias in charge there “animals from hell” who had prevented them having food and tried to stop them leaving (https://www.channel4.com/news/aleppo-have-we-reached-the-endgame). In response to this, Thomson comments from his studio, ‘blaming the rebels may well be genuine, but it could also save your life.’ What? This gratuitous comment he permits himself is given no substantiation. So an identifiable individual manifestly suffering on the screen in front of him is treated as an object of scepticism and insinuation while unidentified activist sources can come out with any tales they choose and these are treated as tantamount to fact.

There is a certain amount of misdirection in the editing too. While referring to unattributed ‘reports’, Channel 4 would run stock footage (unlabelled as such) showing for instance the White Helmets on the ground – as in this one: https://www.channel4.com/news/east-aleppo-bombardment-continues-with-dozens-reported-dead – but they were in reality keeping a very low profile in those days. Misleading interviews, too, as in this one – https://www.channel4.com/news/the-latest-from-aleppo – with a ‘teacher’ who also featured as one of the ‘last days’ webcam publicists, and who later (in February 2017) is writing on Facebook that ‘it is not easy to leave five years of fighting for freedom … The Evil has won a battle but I hope we will get the Freedom in the final stage.’

A particularly egregious practice at Channel 4 is to permit themselves to claim to know Syrian government plans and strategies. Channel 4 is prepared to report on the basis of unspecified sources about ‘what appears to be a deliberate strategy by the Russians to block the evacuation of medical staff from what remains of eastern Aleppo’ (https://www.channel4.com/news/inside-aleppo-latest-from-source-in-the-city) This echoes earlier claims, as in the report that asserted the Syrian government had a plan to make life too unbearable for civilians to stay in Aleppo (https://youtu.be/U7Y_46OE35QS). Such claims are not only preposterous but also implicitly reinforce a disputed claim that it is not the armed militias who are keeping the ordinary population trapped in the area they still hold. This poor journalistic practice seems to be somewhat engrained. We find as recently as 20th January 2017 in the Press Gazette: ‘Channel 4 News editor Ben de Pear told Press Gazette: “Waad and her family really were on the last bus to get out of Aleppo and we know that they and the other doctors and activists and journalists in the city were the number one target of the Assad Regime.”’ http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/channel-4-news-filmmaker-waad-al-kateab-safe-in-turkey-after-escaping-aleppo-siege-on-last-bus-out/ The claim is preposterous in more ways than are worth analysing, but the only question I’d trouble to ask is how de Pear thinks he knows this.

Posted in Channel 4, disinformation, media, propaganda, Syria, Uncategorized, war | 25 Comments