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. 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.
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. 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. These, moreover, can be corroborated.
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.)
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. 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.
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.’ 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. 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.
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…”.
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.
 “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.
 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.
 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 doctors’ SOTT 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.
 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.
 ‘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
 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.
 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.