By David Cromwell and David Edwards
When is an act of terrorism not terrorism? When the victims are officially sanctioned state enemies. This was clear from the political and media response to the assassinations of senior ministers of the Syrian ‘regime’.
On 18 July, a bomb attack on the national security headquarters in Damascus killed three top Syrian ministers: Defence Minister Daoud Rajiha, President Bashar al-Assad's brother-in-law Assef Shawkat and General Hassan Turkomani. Two days later, Syria's national security chief, Hisham Ikhtiari, died from injuries he received in the attack.
Reuters reported U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta saying that the situation in Syria was ‘spinning out of control’. For good measure, he added that President Bashar al-Assad's government would be held responsible if it failed to safeguard its alleged chemical weapons sites. The brazen echoes of the propaganda campaign against Iraq a decade ago could be heard reverberating around the world’s news media.
UK defence minister Philip Hammond, standing alongside Panetta at a Pentagon news conference, said that the bomb attack demonstrated Syria’s growing instability:
‘I think what we're seeing is an opposition which is emboldened, clearly an opposition which has access increasingly to weaponry, probably some fragmentation around the edges of the regime as well.’
Neither men described the bombing as a terrorist attack.
On the same day, an Israeli tourist bus in eastern Bulgaria was attacked by a suicide bomber, killing at least seven people. US President Barack Obama had no hesitation in describing the bombing unequivocally as a ‘barbaric terrorist attack’.
On the BBC News at Ten, news presenter Huw Edwards delivered the required script about the attack in Syria:
‘A bomb attack strikes at the heart of the Assad regime in Damascus.’ (BBC News at Ten, headlines, 18 July 2012)
No mention of the dreaded ‘t-word’ here.
The BBC’s ‘security’ correspondent Frank Gardner reported of the ‘Assad regime’:
‘But the government, which blames terrorists funded from abroad, vows to defeat the rebels.’
Here the accusation of terrorism could be safely put in the mouth of the enemy ‘regime’. Those five words, ‘blames terrorists funded from abroad’, hint at dangerous truths that simply cannot be explored on BBC News. Again, the safe option is to attribute the allegation to the Syrian ‘regime’, thus undermining the claim.
US columnist Glenn Greenwald notes:
‘Needless to say, if such an attack — perpetrated by an “Islamist” suicide bomber — were aimed at a Western government or those of their allies in the region, it would immediately be branded Terrorism and vehemently denounced. One need not speculate about that, as it has already happened. It was called the Pentagon part of the “9/11 attack,” where a plane was flown into America’s military headquarters. More analogous was Nidal Hasan’s 2009 assault on the U.S. military base at Fort Hood, which was instantly branded Terrorism by American media outlets, Washington officials, and a majority of Americans.’
‘Indeed, even if this kind of attack were directed at Western-supported tyrannies in the region — such as, say, Saudi Arabia or Bahrain — the Terrorism label would be widely applied by mainstream Western outlets. In fact, the alleged Iranian plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador — not civilians, but just this single official from a repellently oppressive regime — was instantly denounced as Terrorism.’
When 'Terrorists' Become 'Freedom Fighters'
One of our messageboard visitors posted an extract from a New York Timesarticle on the apparently increasingly effective use of improvised explosive devices by the Syrian ‘insurgency’:
‘Joseph Holliday, a former American Army intelligence officer who is now an analyst covering Syria for the Institute of the Study of War, in Washington, said the changes were not in the rate of attacks, but in a rapidly evolving prowess . . .
‘ . . . The exact means by which anti-Assad fighters have improved their manufacture and use of bombs, and who trained them, is not clear.
‘Mr. Holliday said the capability "comes in part from the expertise of Syrian insurgents who learned bomb-making while fighting U.S. troops in eastern Iraq"'.
The poster, Peter, then made the point that:
‘while they were “fighting U.S. troops in eastern Iraq”, we were told in no uncertain terms that they were evil, terrorist bad guys. Islamo-fascist, Al Qaeda linked, Saddam sympathisers who had to be mercilessly slaughtered.’
Now apparently similar forces in Syria using similar tactics to attack an ‘enemy regime’ are cast as ‘rebels’ or 'freedom fighters' helping to foment a ‘revolution’ as part of the latest stage of the ‘Arab Spring’.
Peter concludes of the bomb attack in Damascus:
‘the tenor of the coverage clearly has nothing to do with moral or logical consistency, and everything to do with the reported act’s utility to Western power.’
By contrast, the violent killings of the Syrian ministers were greeted by ‘Socialist, Independent columnist’ Owen Jones with:
‘Adios, Assad (I hope)’
Jones also tweeted that 'this is a popular uprising, not arriving on the back of Western cruise missiles, tanks and bullets'.
We asked him on Twitter:
'So you disagree with Charles Glass, Patrick Seale, Alastair Crooke et al that the West is supplying arms, training, forces..?'
'John Pilger argues US elites are waging a proxy war on Syria. What do you know that he doesn't know? Any sources?'
Again, the Independent's Owen Jones evaded the questions. We asked Richard ‘lenin’ Seymour and Jones whether they opposed US-UK involvement in Syria. They both said that they did, but neither had yet managed to evaluate the evidence supplied by analysts like Charles Glass, Patrick Seale, Alastair Crooke, Aisling Byrne and others on US-UK arming of the Syrian conflict.
There were two key responses: first from Jones:
Media Lens: 'Have you condemned Western interference in Syria in the Independent, Owen? Any links?'
Jones: 'I haven't written a Syria column. If you want past articles condemning wars from Kosovo to Libya though.'
and then from Seymour:
Media Lens: 'What about arms? Have you written anything on Glass, Seale, Crooke, Byrne, WashPo [Washington Post] evidence on the US-UK proxy war? Is it imp [important]?'
Lenin: 'It's important, but I don't think we would evaluate that evidence in the same way. I'll prob write something about this later.'
Two more joined the fray: Mehdi Hasan, political director of Huffington Post UK (and, until recently, political editor of New Statesman) and Sunny Hundal, editor of the Liberal Conspiracy website and a Guardian contributor. Their Tweets descended into juvenile bouts of ‘humour’ mocking Media Lens for its supposed po-faced stance against ‘imperialism’:
I bet Media Lens are a right laugh down the pub.
@OwenJones84 @sunny_hundal Bet I'm more secretly pro-Iraq-war than you are...
@mehdirhasan @sunny_hundal I'm going to call my first-born Bush. BEAT THAT
@OwenJones84 @sunny_hundal I married a Texan. Beat that!
@mehdirhasan @owenjones84 I was hoping it wouldn't come to this.... but... I'll say it. I'm in love with GW Bush's daughters. *shame*
@sunny_hundal @mehdirhasan I intend to marry one (or both), with Rumsfeld as best man, preferably in the Pentagon control room
@OwenJones84 @sunny_hundal I've been to the Pentagon control room #iwinagain
@mehdirhasan @sunny_hundal Blimey, Mehdi. Maybe MediaLens are right after all. Bet you're on nickname terms with Petraeus
@OwenJones84 @mehdihasan This isn't fair, I wanted to marry Bush's daughters! You two stealing my thunder *prepares to bomb Iran himself*
If anyone wonders just what is wrong with ‘mainstream’ left journalism, the above performance in response to serious questions about Syria and media coverage provides a clue.
There are plenty of damning facts that need to be highlighted. For example, the New York Times reports that the Obama administration is 'increasing aid to the [Syrian] rebels and redoubling efforts to rally a coalition of like-minded countries to forcibly bring down the [Syrian] government'. US officials have been in talks with officials in Turkey and Israel 'over how to manage a Syrian government collapse.' One senior US government insider said:
'You'll notice in the last couple of months, the opposition has been strengthened. Now we're ready to accelerate that.'
The newspaper also reports that the US government is 'working with Syrian rebels to establish a transition process for the day that Mr. Assad's government falls'; a day that the US is clearly determined to bring about. 'We're looking at the controlled demolition of the Assad regime,' said Andrew J. Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The CIA is 'helping to vet rebel groups... in Turkey... and to establish new ties to fighters who may be the country's leaders one day.'
The pattern of such US 'interventions' is long and bloody, and the age of the'American Empire' has not yet ended.
Propaganda Rule Number One
It should hardly need to be emphasised that criticising Western state and corporate propaganda about events in Syria should in no way be interpreted as support for Assad. To suggest this, as a few critics have done, is cynical, ignorant and deceitful. Over the years, we have been accused of being pro-Milosevic, pro-Saddam, pro-Gaddafi, pro-Iran, pro-Assad, and even pro-North Korea, when what we have done is expose Western media bias againstthese official enemies of the West. As a matter of simple common sense it should be obvious that highlighting systemic bias in the corporate media is important, regardless of one’s moral evaluation of the targets of that bias.
Glenn Greenwald sums up what matters here:
‘I’m certainly not calling into question the heinous violence and oppression of the Syrian regime (though I think Western Manichean reporting on the nature of the fighting and the identity of the rebels has been typically and substantially oversimplified). The point here is that we pretend Terrorism has some sort of objective meaning and that it is the personification of pure evil which all decent people (and Good Western nations) by definition categorically despise, when neither of those claims is remotely true.’
Noam Chomsky often cites a definition of terrorism from a US army manual as: ‘the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature. This is done through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear.’ By this definition, the major source of international terrorism is the West, notably the United States with the UK an ever-reliable accomplice.
The point is that Western ‘mainstream’ media outlets report from a propaganda viewpoint that accords with Western state ideology. Violence perpetrated by enemy actors is ‘terrorism’; what ‘we’ or ‘our’ allies do is ‘counterterrorism’ or ‘peace-keeping’. This is arguably the first rule of propaganda. But the question we keep asking is: Why are we the good guys?
Despite its publicly-funded obligation to be fair and impartial, BBC News is forever trapped in this ideological mire. Consider the BBC article asking the loaded question, ‘Is it time to intervene in Syria?’, and answered by ‘five leading analysts’. The very question presupposes some kind of ordained right by Nato and its allies ‘to intervene’. None of the five ‘leading analysts’, all linked to Western governments or their major institutions, even question the premise of the question. And in any case who should intervene? According to the BBC, it’s that amorphous entity known as ‘the international community’ which, as Chomsky points out, is ‘a technical term referring to Washington and whoever happens to agree with it’. (‘Hopes and Prospects’, London, 2010, pp. 196-197).
That this ‘international community’ has shocked and awed its way around the Middle East and beyond - obliterating lives, nations’ infrastructures, hopes and dreams - is the kind of rational analysis so often deemed irrelevant by BBC News and the rest of the ‘mainstream’ media.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Please write to:
Helen Boaden, Head of BBC News
Steve Herrmann, Editor of BBC News website
Jon Williams, BBC foreign editor
Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor