The tools of internet and media censorship are many. They include constant attempts to dismiss legitimate questioning of government claims – such as the ‘Douma chemical attack’ justification given for the 22 April 2018 missile strike on Syria – as the work of small cults of denialists and extremists, or Russian trolls.
But the doubters are not just bloggers and trolls: they include senior UK military figures such as Lord West, former First Sea Lord and Chief of Defence Intelligence, and Major General Jonathan Shaw, former commander of British forces in Iraq, notoriously shut down by a Sky News journalist 30 seconds after he began voicing his doubts.
This second piece on Douma from Media Lens meticulously dissects responses from leading media figures to the wealth of authoritative material calling into question ‘Douma Chemical Attack’.
By the editors of Media Lens, Apr 26, 2018
Jonathan Freedland’s ‘committed denialists and conspiracists’, and Paul Mason’s victims of Putin’s ‘global strategy’ clutching at ‘false flag theories’, presumably include Lord West, former First Sea Lord and Chief of Defence Intelligence. In an interview with the BBC, West commented:
Another senior military figure, Major General Jonathan Shaw, former commander of British forces in Iraq (his responsibilities have included chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear policy), was shut down by a Sky News journalist 30 seconds after he started saying the wrong thing:
At which point Shaw’s sound was cut and the interview terminated. Peter Hitchens asked:
‘Can anyone tell me what was so urgent on Sky News, which made it necessary to cut this distinguished general off in mid-sentence?’
Sky News gave their version of events here, claiming they had to take an ad break.
Also taking a more cautious view than Tisdall, Freedland, Rawnsley, Lucas, Mendoza, Monbiot, Mason and the Guardian editors (see Part 1), is James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis, the US Secretary of Defence, who said:
‘I believe there was a chemical attack and we are looking for the actual evidence.’
Only ‘looking’ for actual evidence?
‘As each day goes by — as you know, it is a non-persistent gas — so it becomes more and more difficult to confirm it.’
The evidence clearly, then, had not yet been found and the claims had not yet been confirmed.
Peter Ford, former British ambassador to Syria, voiced scepticism:
‘The Americans have failed to produce any evidence beyond what they call newspaper reports and social media, whereas Western journalists who have been in Douma [see below] and produced testimony from witnesses – from medics with names so they can be checked – to the effect that the Syrian version is correct.’
Before Trump’s latest attack, Scott Ritter, former chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq, made the point that mattered:
‘The bottom line, however, is that the United States is threatening to go to war in Syria over allegations of chemical weapons usage for which no factual evidence has been provided. This act is occurring even as the possibility remains that verifiable forensic investigations would, at a minimum, confirm the presence of chemical weapons…’
Even a BBC journalist managed some short-lived scepticism. Riam Dalati tweeted:
‘Sick and tired of activists and rebels using corpses of dead children to stage emotive scenes for Western consumption.
‘Then they wonder why some serious journos are questioning part of the narrative.
‘#Douma #ChemicalAttack #EasternGhouta’
The tweet was quickly deleted.
Craig Murray wrote:
‘For the FCO, I lived and worked in several actual dictatorships. The open bias of their media presenters and the tone of their propaganda operations was – always – less hysterical than the current output of the BBC. The facade is not crumbling, it’s tumbling.’
Robert Fisk – Hypoxia, Not Gas
Veteran Middle East journalist Robert Fisk visited Douma and reported his findings in the Independent. He spoke to a senior doctor who works in the clinic where victims of the alleged chemical attack had been brought for treatment. Dr Rahaibani told Fisk what had happened that night:
‘I was with my family in the basement of my home three hundred metres from here on the night but all the doctors know what happened. There was a lot of shelling [by government forces] and aircraft were always over Douma at night – but on this night, there was wind and huge dust clouds began to come into the basements and cellars where people lived. People began to arrive here suffering from hypoxia, oxygen loss. Then someone at the door, a “White Helmet”, shouted “Gas!”, and a panic began. People started throwing water over each other. Yes, the video was filmed here, it is genuine, but what you see are people suffering from hypoxia – not gas poisoning.’
Not gas poisoning? Why was this not immediately headline news in the ‘mainstream’ press and on BBC News? In fact, almost throughout the ‘MSM’, it was quietly buried. The glaring exception was an article in The Times with the pejorative headline:
‘Critics leap on reporter Robert Fisk’s failure to find signs of gas attack’
The piece suggested that there were big question marks over Fisk’s record:
‘Fisk is no stranger to controversy.’
A list of Fisk’s ‘controversies’ followed. There was no mention that, among many accolades, the Arabic-speaking Fisk has won Amnesty International press awards three times, the Foreign Reporter of the Year award seven times and the Journalist of the Year award twice.
In an article published by openDemocracy, Philip Hammond, professor of media and communications at London South Bank University, observed that:
‘In seeking to close down such dissident thought, Times journalists are acting, not as neutral defenders of truth, but as partisan advocates for a particular understanding of the war.’
A Guardian article by diplomatic editor Patrick Wintour and world affairs editor Julian Borger commented of Douma:
A group of reporters, many favoured by Moscow, were taken to the site on Monday. They either reported that no weapon attack had occurred or that the victims had been misled by the White Helmets civilian defence force into mistaking a choking effect caused by dust clouds for a chemical attack.’
Not only was Fisk not mentioned by name, he was lumped in with reporters ‘favoured by Moscow’. Jonathan Cook’s observation said it all:
‘They managed the difficult task of denigrating his account while ignoring the fact that he was ever there.’
In The Intercept, columnist Mehdi Hasan wrote an impassioned open letter addressed to ‘those of you on the anti-war far left who have a soft spot for the dictator in Damascus: Have you lost your minds? Or have you no shame?’ The piece began:
‘Dear Bashar al-Assad Apologists,
‘Sorry to interrupt: I know you’re very busy right now trying to convince yourselves, and the rest of us, that your hero couldn’t possibly have used chemical weapons to kill up to 70 people in rebel-held Douma on April 7. Maybe Robert Fisk’s mysterious doctor has it right — and maybe the hundreds of survivors and eyewitnesses to the attack are all “crisis actors.”‘
So, Fisk’s evidence with its ‘mysterious doctor’ was clearly worthless, something shameless ‘apologists’ were using to try and convince themselves of an absurdity. Hasan named no other names, but readers could guess from the many smear pieces in The Times, Huffington Post, on the BBC, and spread by the likes of Oliver Kamm, George Monbiot and Alan Mendoza.
Hasan portrayed Assad as a satanic figure while the US and its allies – countries that have sent 15,000 high-tech anti-tank missiles, as well as billions of dollars of other weapons and training to fighters in Syria – are mere ‘meddlers’. The jihadists are ‘rebels’ (a generally noble term), not fanatical invaders from Libya and Iraq. Hasan referenced biased sources including Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch, Martin Chulov of the Guardian, and the White Helmets.
The Intercept’s co-editor, Glenn Greenwald, defended the piece:
‘There is a meaningful debate to be had on Syria and, as I’ve said before, most media outlets (including us) have been quite one-sided about it. That said, Mehdi’s article, well-documented though it was, didn’t name anyone who guilty of loving Assad so I’m not sure who is offended’
‘”Mehdi’s article, well-documented though it was, didn’t name anyone”. That’s the problem. Hasan’s article arrives in the context of a cross-spectrum, name-and-shame smear campaign making similar points’
Political analyst Ian Sinclair declared Hasan’s article a ‘Necessary and important piece’.
It certainly wasn’t ‘necessary’ to damn Assad yet again – the world’s corporate media have been packed with news and comment pieces doing exactly that for years. As for the need to expose left ‘apologists’ – as we have seen, corporate media are currently mounting a fierce campaign targeting leftist university academics, apparently with the intention of getting them fired.
The question of importance is less clear-cut. The piece will, of course, have no effect whatsoever on Assad, whom Western ‘apologists’ on ‘the anti-war far left’ would be powerless to influence even if they came round to Hasan’s view. On the other hand, as a purported ‘leftist’, Hasan’s piece is important as ammunition for foreign policy warmongers, neocons and others. Thus, Jonathan Freedland tweeted:
‘Strong piece from @mehdirhasan’
‘To all those who have been trying to persuade me that the Assad government is simply maintaining order, please read this excellent article by @mehdirhasan #Syria’
Oliver Kamm of The Times:
‘”Is this atrocity denial really necessary?” Well said by Mehdi on the extraordinary, scandalous spectacle of people purporting to be anti-imperialists while denying the crimes of Assad.’
Hasan, of course, knew his article would receive this kind of favourable attention, and he has form in reaching out to this audience. In 2010, whilst senior political editor at the New Statesman, he wrote a letter offering his services to Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre:
‘I have always admired the paper’s passion, rigour, boldness and, of course, news values. I believe the Mail has a vitally important role to play in the national debate, and I admire your relentless focus on the need for integrity and morality in public life, and your outspoken defence of faith, and Christian culture, in the face of attacks from militant atheists and secularists. I also believe… that I could be a fresh and passionate, not to mention polemical and contrarian, voice on the comment and feature pages of your award-winning newspaper.
‘For the record, I am not a Labour tribalist and am often ultra-critical of the left – especially on social and moral issues, where my fellow leftists and liberals have lost touch with their own traditions and with the great British public… I could therefore write pieces for the Mail critical of Labour and the left, from “inside” Labour and the left (as the senior political editor at the New Statesman).’
Because, as we all know, being ‘ultra-critical’ of the left ‘from “inside” Labour and the left’ – for example, asking ‘the anti-war far left who have a soft spot for the dictator in Damascus: Have you lost your minds? Or have you no shame?’ – carries enormous weight.
In his piece for The Intercept, Hasan commented:
‘And, look, we can argue over whether or not to support… regime change in Damascus (I don’t).’
And yet, in 2013, he wrote:
‘I want Assad gone and I believe him to be a brutal and corrupt dictator.’
Hasan’s angry mockery of doubters on Douma is ironic indeed, given his own record on Libya. At a crucial time in March 2011, with NATO jets bombing Gaddafi’s troops, Hasan commented:
‘The innocent people of Benghazi deserve protection from Gaddafi’s murderous wrath.’
Fisk’s account, irrationally scorned by Hasan, was backed by on-the-ground testimony from reporter Pearson Sharp from One America News Network:
‘Not one of the people that I spoke to in that neighbourhood said that they had seen anything, or heard anything, about a chemical attack on that day… they didn’t see or hear anything out of the ordinary.’
As far as we could tell, there was nothing on the flagship BBC News at Six and Ten about any of this testimony from doctors and residents claiming that there was no evidence of a chemical attack in Douma on April 7.
It is shocking that the BBC ignored evidence supplied from Syria by Fisk – one of Britain’s finest journalists – when it has cited hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times evidence supplied by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is run by a clothes shop owner in Coventry who supports regime change in Syria.
On BBC News at Ten on April 15, presenter Mishal Husain, Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen and political editor Laura Kuenssberg discussed the missile strikes on Syria and the political fallout here at home. There was no mention that the strikes had taken place just as OPCW inspectors had arrived in Damascus. Nor was there any discussion of expert opinion from international lawyers contradicting the government’s assertion that the attacks were legal. A group of international law experts warned:
‘We are practitioners and professors of international law. Under international law, military strikes by the United States of America and its allies against the Syrian Arab Republic, unless conducted in self-defense or with United Nations Security Council approval, are illegal and constitute acts of aggression.’
Meanwhile, the BBC joined the McCarthyite witch-hunt against anyone challenging the official narrative. In a piece titled, ‘Syria war: The online activists pushing conspiracy theories’, an anonymous BBC journalist commented:
‘Despite the uncertainty about what happened in Douma, a cluster of influential social media activists is certain that it knows what occurred.’
Of course, the irony is that an incomparably bigger and better funded ‘cluster of influential’ state-corporate media has been vociferously claiming certainty about what is happening in Syria; not least 100% conviction of Assad’s guilt for a string of chemical weapon attacks.
We have no idea who was responsible for the event in Douma – we don’t know even if there was a chemical weapons attack. Our point is not that credible, sceptical voices are right, but that they should be heard.
On April 12, novelist Malcolm Pryce sent us this poignant tweet:
‘I remember in the run-up to the Iraq War a friend I had known all my life suddenly said to me, “We must do something about this monster in Iraq.” I said, “When did you first think that?” He answered honestly, “A month ago”.’
This is the power of the corporate media to shape the public mind it is supposed to serve.
But to achieve this effect, it must present a black and white view of the world – ‘we’ are ‘good’, ‘they’ are ‘bad’; ‘we’ are ‘certain’, ‘they’ are morally bewildered ‘apologists’. When reality threatens to get in the way, when there is no choice, an increasingly extreme ‘mainstream’ will resort to deception in plain sight.