By: David Edwards
In two alerts on May 31 and June 13, we noted how the UK corporate media system instantly found, not just the Syrian government, but its leader Bashar Assad, responsible for the May 25 massacre of 108 people, including 49 children, in Houla, Syria.
Numerous cartoons depicted Assad smeared with blood or bathing in blood. Just two days after the massacre, the Independent on Sunday’s front cover wanted to know what its readers were going to do about it:
‘There is, of course, supposed to be a ceasefire, which the brutal Assad regime simply ignores. And the international community? It just averts its gaze. Will you do the same? Or will the sickening fate of these innocent children make you very, very angry?’ (Independent on Sunday, May 27, 2012)
Quite what readers were supposed to do, other than gaze, was unclear. After all, one of the great triumphs of modern politics is the near-complete insulation of US-UK foreign policy against democratic pressures.
Inside the paper, David Randall wrote these bitter words:
‘He is the President; she is the First Lady; they are dead children. He governs but doesn’t protect; she shops and doesn’t care… And one hopes that those on the United Nations Security Council, when it reconvenes, will look into the staring eyes of these dead children and remember the hollow words of Assad’s wife when she simpered that she “comforts the families” of her country’s victims.’
This was standard for political commentary and media coverage right across politics and media. Houla was not reported as just one more ugly event in world news. It was sold to the British public as an historic ‘something must be done’ tipping point on a par with the contestedRacak and hypothetical Benghazi massacres used to justify the West’s attacks on Serbia in 1999 and Libya in 2011, respectively.
US and UK politicians were clearly desperate to use Houla to stoke their regime-change agenda. Rehearsing the crude tactics of the Bush-Blair era, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UK Foreign Secretary William Hague endlessly repeated their damning judgements: facts were irrelevant, propaganda stunts everything. No holds were barred. The media, as ever, were happy to go along for the ride.
If the US-UK alliance was to succeed in justifying externally-imposed regime change, then the Assad government had to be declared responsible – certainly, solely, unforgivably. And that indeed was the message supplied by the media.
However, as we explained in our June 13 alert, cracks in the story quickly began to emerge. It turned out that women and children had not had their throats cut, as had been universally asserted. Moreover, the BBC’s World News editor Jon Williams commented:
‘In Houla, and now in Qubair, the finger has been pointed at the shabiha, pro-government militia. But tragic death toll aside, the facts are few: it’s not clear who ordered the killings – or why.’
But these and a handful of other comments – and the sources informing them – were kept low-profile and did not become part of the media discussion. Inexplicably, the implications for earlier media claims went unexamined, undiscussed.
The UN – ‘Unable To Determine The Identity Of The Perpetrators At This Time’
Last week, on June 27, a UN Commission of Inquiry delivered its report on the massacre. In considering those responsible, the UN described the three most likely possibilities:
‘First, that the perpetrators were Shabbiha or other local militia from neighbouring villages, possibly operating together with, or with the acquiescence of, the Government security forces; second, that the perpetrators were anti-Government forces seeking to escalate the conflict while punishing those that failed to support – or who actively opposed – the rebellion; or third, foreign groups with unknown affiliation.’
The report’s assessment:
‘With the available evidence, the CoI [Commission of Inquiry] could not rule out any of these possibilities.’
The UN summarised:
‘The CoI is unable to determine the identity of the perpetrators at this time; nevertheless the CoI considers that forces loyal to the Government may have been responsible for many of the deaths. The investigation will continue until the end of the CoI mandate.’
A remarkably cautious conclusion, given that it was produced in the face of intense Western political and media pressure (no doubt also behind the scenes) to blame the Syrian government.
So how did the media react to this high-profile report starkly contradicting its consensus on Houla? An honest media would have headlined the UN’s doubt, alerting readers to the earlier baseless assertions and misreporting.
Instead, the LexisNexis media database search engine finds (July 5) just six articles mentioning the report in UK national newspapers and their websites, with only five of these mentioning Houla. An astonishingly low level of coverage given the massive media attention that preceded it. LexisNexis records 1,017 print and online articles mentioning Houla in all UK newspapers since the massacre on May 25.
The Independent, which, as discussed, initially led the field in Houla hype, described the UN findings thus:
‘Gunmen raided the headquarters of a pro-government Syrian TV station yesterday, killing seven employees, kidnapping others and demolishing buildings. The government described the killings as a “massacre,” just as the UN was blaming state forces for the Houla massacre.’
If this was a gross misrepresentation of the UN’s findings, it was rendered absurd by clicking an online link to ‘More’, which took readers to these words from Patrick Cockburn:
‘The UN report on last month’s massacre at Houla, near the northern city of Homs, does not name those responsible, saying only that forces loyal to the government “may have been responsible” for many of the deaths.
‘It does not name the Alawite militia – the Shabiha – as being responsible, as has been widely reported, but said they had easiest access to Houla.’
That indeed was the news – the UN report had starkly contradicted the ‘widely reported’ but false certainty.
In similar vein, a Guardian piece was titled: ‘Syrian government loyalists “may be responsible” for massacre – UN report.’
A separate Guardian headline bullet point read: ‘Assad forces may be to blame for many Houla deaths – UN.’
By contrast, more accurately, Alex Thomson of Channel 4 News tweeted:
‘UN Syria report: says al-Houla massacre of 108 could have been done by either pro or anti Assad militias’
We wrote to Thomson: ‘Interesting, the Guardian is reporting it thus: ‘Syrian government loyalists “may be responsible”‘ UN report.’
Thomson replied: ‘true but UN equally saying anti-govt militia could have done it. And I speak as someone interviewed by UN on this.’
The former Guardian and Observer journalist, Jonathan Cook, emailed us:
‘Yes, in fact, the Guardian’s headline stating that Syrian government loyalists “may have been responsible” for the Houla massacre is simply preposterous. The narrative already promoted by the Guardian (and everyone else) is that they *were* responsible. So it should be blindingly obvious to the editors that the only *news* in this UN report is that the government loyalists may *not* have been responsible. Jonathan’ (Email to Media Lens, June 27, 2012)
Just three days after the UN report was published, Martin Chulov wrote in the Guardian:
‘In the Syrian village of Qatma, not far from the Turkish border, a family from the town of Houla, where a massacre widely blamed on regime backers took place in late May, has taken refuge.’
In the article, which focused solely on the perspective of Syria’s armed opposition, Chulov made no mention of the UN report or the fact that it had challenged the ‘widely’ circulated claims. Instead, he concluded:
‘Where the UN and the international community may have been seen as ponderous in the Balkans, they are viewed in a worse light through a Syrian opposition lens – impotent.
‘”What they are talking about [in Geneva] is meaningless,” said Idris [a Syrian exile]. “It won’t change things.”’
Seen as ‘ponderous’ by whom? Presumably not the current Syrian opposition. And presumably not by those of us appalled by the mendacious propaganda used to justify Nato’s war on Serbia in 1999. Chulov meant, of course, right-thinking people. The comment recalled Chulov’s earlier response on Twitter:
‘Took a v long time to muster support for a response in Bosnia and Kosovo. Syria will be even more difficult.’
Even The Times did better than the Guardian:
‘The [UN] authors said that they were unable to determine who carried out a massacre of more than 100 people in Houla last month but added that forces loyal to Mr Assad may have been responsible for many of the killings.’ (Janine di Giovanni, ‘Assad and rebels think they have more to gain from violence, UN general says,’ The Times, June 28, 2012)
The BBC website initially commented:
‘UN investigator and author of the report Karen Abuzayd told the BBC that “there is the possibility of three different groups who may have done this”.
‘She said that government forces were responsible for the initial shelling in which some people died. But what she called the “massacre” afterwards in people’s homes was done either by militiamen from Alawite villages – known as shabiha – or possibly by armed opposition groups.’
As the News Sniffer website recorded, these words were quickly edited out. Similar comments were later restored.
Media response to the UN report on Houla is a striking example of how the corporate system has evolved to channel and boost government propaganda claims on demand. As ever, counter-evidence, even from highly-respected sources, struggles to make any headway against this ‘babbling brook of bullshit’.
One might think that the primary concern of editors and journalists would be to provide media consumers with accurate, comprehensible information, not least by correcting earlier high-profile errors. But not a single editorial or comment piece examining the implications of the UN report on Houla has sought to do this. Most readers and viewers will continue to believe that women and children had their throat cuts, certainly on the orders of the Syrian government. Others will be simply bewildered by an overwhelming consensus punctuated by odd, apparently credible, but unexplored contradictions.
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:
John Mullin, editor of the Independent on Sunday
Email: [email protected]
David Randall at the Independent
Email: [email protected]
Martin Chulov at the Guardian
Via Twitter: @martinchulov
Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor
Email: [email protected]
Via twitter: @arusbridger
Steve Herrmann, BBC News online editor
Email: [email protected]