By David Edwards
Corporate media coverage of atrocities in Egypt, Libya and Syria has closely matched US-UK government interpretations and priorities.
While the US government has refused to describe what was very obviously a military coup in Egypt on July 3 as a coup, many media have also tended to shy away from the term, referring instead to the ‘ousting’ and ‘removal’ of the elected government.
In reporting atrocities in Libya and Syria, the BBC focuses heavily on the word ‘crime’, but described the mass murder in Egypt on August 14 as a ‘tragedy’. Killing in Syria is routinely described as a ‘massacre’, but in Egypt often as the less pejorative ‘crackdown‘.
In February 2011, The Times insisted that ‘there is incontrovertible evidence’ that demonstrators in Benghazi ‘are being blown apart by mortar fire’.
The ethical response to these and other alleged crimes by the Gaddafi ‘regime’:
‘British officials and private citizens must do all they can to cajole, pressure and exhort it out of power.’ (Leading article, ‘In bombing its own civilians, Libya stands exposed as an outlaw regime,’ The Times, February 23, 2011)
Compare The Times’ response the day after the August 14 massacre of perhaps 1,000 people by a military junta that had overthrown the democratically elected government:
‘The legitimacy of Egypt’s interim regime hangs by a thread after yesterday’s killings.’ (Leading article, ‘Murder in Cairo,’ The Times, August 15, 2013)
The Times at least recognised that there had been ‘a massacre’ following ‘a coup d’état’. But whereas Gaddafi’s ‘outlaw regime’ had to be forced ‘out of power’ – not just by officials but by UK ‘private citizens’ – Egypt’s ‘interim regime’ somehow retained shreds of ‘legitimacy’.
Should coup leader General al-Sisi be cajoled and ejected?
‘General al-Sisi’s most urgent task is to rebuild… faith. He still commands the support of many those who took to the streets in July… the US should enforce its own laws and suspend its aid to Egypt. It is too soon to give up on progress… but it will take more than hope to make it happen.’ (Leading article, ‘Crisis management,’ The Times, August 17, 2013)
It will take more than hope, but less than bombing, it seems. Private citizens can stand easy.
In 2011, the Independent celebrated the resurrection of ‘humanitarian intervention’:
‘The international community has managed to come together over Libya in a way that, even a few days ago, seemed impossible. The adventurism [sic] of Bush and Blair in 2003 looked as if it had buried the principle of humanitarian intervention for a generation. It has returned sooner than anyone believed possible.’
On the success in Libya:
‘Concern was real enough that a Srebrenica-style massacre could unfold in Benghazi, and the UK Government was right to insist that we would not allow this.’
‘We’, of course, are legally and morally qualified to decide what to ‘allow’ in the world, despite ‘our’ occasional ‘adventurism’.
The banner front page headline of the Independent on Sunday (IoS) raged in the aftermath of Syria’s Houla massacre, long before responsibility had been established:
‘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)
Should we, then, be ‘very, very angry’ about ‘the sickening fate’ of unarmed civilian protestors massacred in cold blood in Egypt? The IoS editors have not commented, but their sister paper observed:
‘The Obama administration made its displeasure felt yesterday by cancelling joint military exercises. Yet Washington still refuses to call a coup a coup, preferring the influence that goes with $1.3bn annual aid to Egypt’s military. It is high time that leverage is put to use. All support should now be withdrawn, pending free elections.’
No, ‘action’, no ‘intervention’, just withdrawal of support. The hand-wringing conclusion was positively Pinteresque:
‘The transition from autocracy to democracy was never going to be easy.’
The Observer’s ‘Honest Passion’ For War
The title of a March 13, 2011 Observer leading article was clear enough:
‘The west can’t let Gaddafi destroy his people’
Again, it goes without saying that the West is legally and morally qualified to determine what is and is not allowable in this world. After all, consider ‘our’ track record. The editors continued:
‘It won’t be too long, at this rate, before Benghazi itself is threatened. And be equally clear what will happen when it is: there will be another bloodbath, this time a slaughter of men and women who dared to stand against a vile regime. Who’ll sit comfortably through what will doubtless be dubbed another Srebrenica?’
In a state of Churchillian high emotion, the Observer’s editors demanded ‘a common position which brooks no more argument’ – further discussion would not be tolerated. Instead, we were all to ‘pledge, with the honest passion we affect to feel that, whether repulsed in time or not, this particular tyranny will not be allowed to stand. Libya is part of freedom’s future: it must not be buried by a quavering past’.
When official enemies are targeted, readers are personally exhorted to take action. We, as private citizens, are not to ‘turn away’. We are to ‘cajole, pressure and exhort’, to passionately ‘pledge’ to do our bit for history. This is deeply flattering to readers’ sense of self-importance. And ironic, given the media’s consistent refusal to discuss foreign policy issues at election time, and given the major political parties’ range of choice on foreign policy: war or war.
After Tripoli fell to Libyan ‘rebel’ forces in 2011, the Guardian wrote of Nato’s assault:
‘…it can now reasonably be said that in narrow military terms it worked, and that politically there was some retrospective justification for its advocates as the crowds poured into the streets of Tripoli to welcome the rebel convoys earlier this week’.
So who won the argument for and against the assault?
‘Because it was a close argument, there should be no point-scoring now.’
Again, we’d had our fun, there was nothing more to discuss.
A Guardian leader immediately after the August 14 massacre noted that the reaction of the international community ‘failed lamentably to match the significance of these events’. The US government’s comments were ‘all rhetorical statements, unless and until the US is prepared to cut its $1.3bn aid to Egypt’s military’ (our emphasis).
So while the Guardian had assailed readers with the West’s ‘responsibility to protect’ with force in Libya (See Part 1 of this alert), and has again, now, in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria (see below), the need in Egypt was merely for the US to cut off aid.
The Telegraph also celebrated Nato’s assault on Libya:
‘As the net tightens round Muammar Gaddafi and his family, Nato deserves congratulations on having provided the platform for rebel success.’
And, after Houla, Assad simply had to go:
‘Even the Russians, who have been remarkably obtuse over Syria, must surely now see that.’
By contrast, amazingly, a Telegraph leader after the coup, and even after the August 14 massacre, was titled:
‘Democracy in Egypt is on the brink of collapse’
Was this an attempt at black humour? The editorial warned that, ‘if order collapses, or can be maintained only by a state of emergency, then the prospects are bleak for democracy in Egypt’.
As if the massacre of hundreds of civilians by a military junta did not already indicate the complete collapse of ‘democracy’ and ‘order’.
Should the West take military action? Alas, ‘we are powerless to intervene’, but using economic levers ‘we must seek to bring pressure to bear where we can’.
Damascus Gas Attack? ‘Red Lines’ Crossed, Broken, Smashed
As this alert was being written, one week after the massacre in Egypt, claims emerged of a major gas attack killing hundreds of civilians in Damascus, Syria. Channel 4’s Sarah Smith asked the question that arises so readily, so naturally, for UK journalists:
‘Syria chemical weapons horror – is it time for intervention?’ (Smith, Snowmail, August 22, 2013)
No need for UN inspectors to gather factual evidence of chemical weapons use; Smith, Channel 4’s business correspondent, already knew what had happened and who was to blame:
‘There seems little doubt that red lines have now been crossed, broken and smashed to pieces. But what will anyone do about it?’
The ‘red lines’ of course referred to Obama’s warning to the Syrian government that its use of chemical weapons would trigger US ‘intervention’. No-one is pretending the US would bomb the ‘rebels’.
In similar vein, a Guardian leader commented, again with no serious evidence:
‘There is next to no doubt that chemical weapons were used in Ghouta in eastern Damascus… Nor is there much doubt about who committed the atrocity.’
A second leader continued to mislead readers, insisting on the need for ‘clear and persuasive information’ indicating that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons:
‘That information may well exist – much of the evidence points in that direction.’
In reality, the truth is simply unknown. Even US intelligence officials argue that the responsibility of the Syrian government, let alone Assad, is no ‘slam dunk’. Chemical weapons experts are also clear that much doubt remains.
It is of course possible that government forces launched the attacks, although it would have been an inexplicably foolish, indeed suicidal, act for Assad to order the mass gassing of civilians three days after UN inspectors had arrived in the country. In the Daily Mail, Peter Hitchens offered a rare rational comment on this theme:
‘In those circumstances, what could possibly have possessed him to do something so completely crazy? He was, until this event, actually doing quite well in his war against the Sunni rebels. Any conceivable gains from using chemical weapons would be cancelled out a million times by the diplomatic risk. It does not make sense. Mr Assad is not Saddam Hussein, or some mad carpet-biting dictator, but a reasonably intelligent, medically-trained person who has no detectable reason to act in such an illogical and self-damaging fashion.
‘The rebels, on the other hand (in many cases non-Syrian jihadists who are much disliked by many ordinary Syrians because of the misery they have brought upon them), have many good reasons to stage such an attack.’
And recall that on May 6, speaking for the United Nations independent commission of inquiry on Syria, Carla Del Ponte said, ‘there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated. This was use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities’.
No matter, the front page of the Independent read:
‘Syria: air attacks loom as West finally acts’ (Independent, August 26, 2013)
Even the Independent’s Robert Fisk commented:
‘The gassing of hundreds in the outskirts of Damascus has now taken Syria across another of the West’s famous “red lines” – and yet again, only words come from Washington and London.’
Once again, as in the case of Houla, there was instantly little or no doubt about responsibility.
Once again, the talk was of ‘options’, ‘possibly airstrikes against missile depots and aircraft that Mr Assad would not like to lose,’ the Guardian surmised.
And once again, discussion of the West’s ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) exploded across the media ‘spectrum’: on the BBC, in an Independent leader and an article by Katherine Butler, in an Observer leader, in numerous editorials, letters and articles in the Telegraph, Times and elsewhere. In the last four days, the Guardian has published a flurry of articles discussing R2P in relation to Syria by Joshua Rozenberg, Malcolm Rifkind, Paul Lewis, John Holmes and Julian Borger.
The Lexis database continues to find (August 29) exactly no discussions of R2P in relation to the massacre by the West’s military allies in Egypt.
We ought to find it astonishing that the corporate media can flip direction with such discipline – instantly, like a flock of starlings – between such clearly self-contradictory positions.
In truth, it takes a minimal capacity for rational thought to see that the corporate ‘free press’ is a structurally irrational and biased, and extremely violent, system of elite propaganda.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Brian Whitaker at the Guardian: [email protected] Twitter: @Brian_Whit
Jonathan Freedland at the Guardian: [email protected] Twitter: @_jfreedland
Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor: [email protected] Twitter: @rusbridger
Sarah Smith at Channel 4 News: [email protected] Twitter: @sarahsmithC4