How the BBC helps pave the road to war on Syria

by The Editors (source: News Unspun)
Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Syrian conflict has been accompanied by a distinct media narrative. Within this narrative - which poses a binary division between the forces engaged in the conflict, identifying the players as good (the rebels, who must receive 'our' support) and bad (the government) - the role the West must play is that of potential saviour, whose aim is to cautiously observe the conflict so that it may intervene to 'fix' the situation, as The Guardian's Simon Tisdall put it:

"So what can Obama do? As Vladimir Putin was expected to make plain to John Kerry in Moscow on Tuesday, he cannot count on Russian (or, therefore, Chinese or UN security council) support to fix Syria."

This sentiment, that the West can put right the Syrian situation, is inherent to most reporting of the conflict. The BBC recently reported that 'the pressure to act has intensified in recent days after emerging evidence that Syria has used chemical weapons such as the nerve gas sarin'. This statement presents the existence of a 'pressure to act' as a given, though the source of such pressure is unidentified. From where is this pressure emerging? As a BBC report points out, public opinion in France, the UK, the US, and Germany is by majority opposed to the possibility of intervention in the conflict through sending arms and military supplies to the Syrian opposition. The BBC is not then speaking on behalf of the public majority. Pressure towards military intervention, to some extent considered a desirable option by the UK government (if it can 'achieve the result [they] want', as Cameron put it in an interview with Nick Robinson), is, however, increasingly mounting within the media itself.

Chemical Weapons 'Evidence'

It is also important to note that the 'emerging evidence' referred to above is not conclusive despite the wording of this report. The BBC reported again on Monday 6 May that 'Western powers have said their own investigations have found evidence that government forces have used chemical weapons'. Again, this is simply not the case. 'Western powers', regardless of their true intentions, have in fact been very cautious in public about how precisely they present their claims, underscoring the lack of conclusive evidence they have found and that there exists the possibility that chemical weapons had been used by the Syrian government. This misrepresentation by the BBC emerges in a context in which the use of chemical weapons has been signified by the UK and US as the point at which they may become militarily involved in the Syrian conflict. As such these details, so easily misrepresented by the BBC, are of high consequence.

(There are other examples of BBC reports dangerously getting important facts wrong about such issues: just over a year ago, for example, a BBC news report stated that the 'International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a report with new evidence showing Iran was secretly working towards obtaining a nuclear weapon' - in this case the report said no such thing.)

Journalists Pushing for Intervention

In recent reports, certain BBC journalists have appeared more hawkish than government officials themselves. Take for example a question put to Cameron by the BBC's Nick Robinson:

"Do you ever fear that a terrible thing is happening in our world and that Western leaders cannot or will not act because of a fear of another Iraq?"

Cameron responded with 'I do worry about that', before clarifying that what he has concluded from the 'Iraq lesson' is that the UK should only enter into conflicts it can win, that 'the ability is there'. This is at a far remove from the implication of Robinson's question that past 'mistakes' might prevent the West from playing a righteous humanitarian role. Yet Robinson's leading question provides the basis for the seemingly unambiguous headline: 'Cameron fears Iraq effect holding West back in Syria'.

There is a prevailing trend of journalists taking up the position of presenting the case for military intervention in Syria and proactively pushing government representatives to commit to intentions for military action. On the Andrew Marr show on 5 May Jeremy Vine asked Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond a number of questions which demonstrated this pressure by the media for the UK to become involved in the Syrian conflict. When Hammond appeared cautious regarding the prospect of military intervention, stating that the UK would need to engage in discussion with the UK's 'allies and partners', Vine admonished, 'you're talking about having a series of meetings'. Another brief exchange emphasises Vine's apparent desire to see the UK intervene:

"Phillip Hammond: 'Frankly that [the potential use of chemical weapons] is not what's delivering the tally of 70,000 that have been killed… the majority of these people have been killed by conventional weapons'.

Jeremy Vine: 'More reason to do something then...' "

These comments reflect the consistency of BBC reporting which seems aimed towards creating a case for war. When Carla Del Ponte, of the UN's Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, told reporters that there were 'strong, concrete suspicions' that the rebels - perhaps not as virtuous as would be convenient for States considering providing military support - may have used chemical weapons, the tone of BBC reporting did not suggest that the pressure for military action should be alleviated.

Analysis of Attacks on Syria: Real and Imagined

Taking the case a step further, Jonathan Marcus, the BBC's diplomatic correspondent, discussed the various ways in which the US could attack Syria. His assessment reads more like a military strategy report than an analysis of events for a news provider. Surgical airstrikes, Marcus said, 'could be carried out by cruise missiles launched from aircraft well outside Syrian airspace or from warships or submarines in the Mediterranean', while a wider air campaign, 'might have to be preceded by a significant effort to destroy missiles, associated radars and command systems and might well involve losses'. Why it is in the public interest that such analysis is brought to us by journalists is unclear. Through Marcus's piece, which is nothing more than speculation of military strategy on an as yet non-existent, illegal military intervention, the idea of an attack on Syria from outside is normalised further.

The reporting on the air strikes that Israel has carried out on Syria also reveals how normalised warfare has become in BBC reporting, with very little discussion of casualties or of the chaos inflicted on the people who were bombed. What was important, in this story, it seems, is that Israel was protecting itself from weapons that were supposedly being transported. This is summed up in the BBC's Q&A page on the Israeli airstrikes: in answer to the question 'Why would Israel attack?' we are told that 'the statements from unnamed officials suggest Israel's actions are defensive.' If the Syrian government had, for example, attacked the Israeli air force within Israel, to prevent airstrikes on its own territory, it is extremely unlikely that this would be overwhelmingly reported as an act of defence. Yet when Israel bombs another country, BBC journalists and editors happily report such actions as 'defensive' measures.

Jonathan Marcus writes that Israel's airstrikes are 'designed to send a powerful signal' (the headline: 'Israeli air strikes: A warning to Syria's Assad'). It is worth at this point noting that following the last Israel attack on Syria, in early 2013, Marcus also wrote that this was 'in one sense pre-emptive, but also a warning'. It was also portrayed as a 'signal'. That such attacks are continuously reported as warnings and signals, as seemingly rational, and therefore it seems permissible, actions, goes further to normalise them. We might wonder how many attacks Israel would have to inflict on another country before Jonathan Marcus stops referring to the attacks as 'signals' and 'warnings'?

In their seeming urgency to present a case for war, BBC reporters have neglected factual accuracy of reported events. Scepticism towards the unsupported claims of Western governments, insistence upon proof, is also lacking. We are presented with a simplified narrative, of 'good versus evil', in which the possibility of misconduct on both sides of the conflict is considered improbable. This style of reporting very much takes its lead from the positions of Western governments. Whitehouse spokesman Jay Carney outlined the position of the US: 'We are highly sceptical of suggestions that the opposition could have or did use chemical weapons. We find it highly likely that any chemical weapon use that has taken place in Syria was done by the Assad regime, and that remains our position'. The supposed instincts of the US or UK government, despite the inconclusive nature of the evidence, as to the righteousness of the Syrian rebels is not proof of the reality and should not be considered by journalists as such.


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