Mass Media Siege: Comparing Coverage Of Mosul and Aleppo

When Russian and Syrian forces were bombarding ‘rebel’-held East Aleppo last year, newspapers and television screens were full of anguished reporting about the plight of civilians killed, injured, trapped, traumatised or desperately fleeing. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, both Official Enemies, were denounced and demonised, in accordance with the usual propaganda script. One piece in the Evening Standard described Assad as a ‘monster’ and a Boris Johnson column in the Telegraph referred to both Putin and Assad as ‘the Devil’.

As the respected veteran reporter Patrick Cockburn put it:

‘The partisan reporting of the siege of East Aleppo presented it as a battle between good and evil: The Lord of the Rings, with Assad and Putin as Saruman and Sauron.’

This, he said, was ‘the nadir of Western media coverage of the wars in Iraq and Syria.’ Media reporting focused laser-like on ‘Last calls (or messages or tweets) from Aleppo’. There were heart-breaking accounts of families, children, elderly people, all caught up in dreadful conditions that could be pinned on the ‘brutal’ Assad and his ‘regime’; endless photographs depicting grief and suffering that tore at one’s psyche.

By contrast, there was little of this evident in media coverage as the Iraqi city of Mosul, with a population of around one million, was being pulverised by the US-led ‘coalition’ from 2015; particularly since the massive assault launched last October to ‘liberate’ the city from ISIS, with ‘victory’ declared a few days ago. Most pointedly, western media coverage has not, of course, demonised the US for inflicting mass death and suffering.

As Cockburn pointed out, there were ‘many similarities between the sieges of Mosul and East Aleppo, but they were reported very differently’.

He explained:

‘When civilians are killed or their houses destroyed during the US-led bombardment of Mosul, it is Islamic State that is said to be responsible for their deaths: they were being deployed as human shields. When Russia or Syria targets buildings in East Aleppo, Russia or Syria is blamed: the rebels have nothing to do with it.’

For example:

‘Heartrending images from East Aleppo showing dead, wounded and shellshocked children were broadcast around the world. But when, on 12 January, a video was posted online showing people searching for bodies in the ruins of a building in Mosul that appeared to have been destroyed by a US-led coalition airstrike, no Western television station carried the pictures.’

Cockburn summarised:

‘In Mosul, civilian loss of life is blamed on Isis, with its indiscriminate use of mortars and suicide bombers, while the Iraqi army and their air support are largely given a free pass. […] Contrast this with Western media descriptions of the inhuman savagery of President Assad’s forces indiscriminately slaughtering civilians regardless of whether they stay or try to flee.’


Mopping Up Pockets Of Resistance

In October 2016, the US-led coalition stepped up its bombing raids and artillery attacks on Mosul, over and above what had already been an intensive military campaign following the city’s capture by ISIS in 2014. According to a new report by Amnesty, 5,805 civilians were killed as a result of attacks launched by the coalition between February and June of 2017. As with Iraq Body Count figures for the whole of the country, this figure is likely to be much too low. Moreover, it excludes the first few months and the final few weeks of intensive bombardment.

Amnesty says that the people of Mosul were subjected to:

‘a terrifying barrage of fire from weapons that should never be used in densely populated civilian areas.’

US political writer Bill Van Auken comments:

‘In Amnesty’s typically cautious fashion in dealing with the US government, the report stated that “US-led coalition forces appear to have committed repeated violations of international law, some of which may amount to war crimes.”‘

Van Auken adds:

‘While Amnesty indicts ISIS with far greater conviction than it does the US military, it raises no questions as to who is responsible for ISIS in the first place, much less the historical roots of the human catastrophe inflicted upon Mosul.’

As informed people are all too aware:

‘ISIS had been well-armed, funded and trained for use as a proxy force in the wars for regime change orchestrated by the CIA and Washington’s regional allies, first in Libya and then in Syria.’

This is all part of a bigger picture involving decades of:

‘war, sanctions, invasion and occupation inflicted by US imperialism on the oil-rich country, resulting in the decimation of an entire society, the loss of well over a million lives, and the turning of millions more into homeless refugees.’

Media coverage of the ‘victory’ over ISIS in Mosul has omitted this history, of course; just as it has either ignored or downplayed the huge numbers of civilians killed by the coalition there. True, there are now reports emerging of the plight of civilians leaving Mosul, and the BBC has noted Amnesty ‘allegations’, while giving prominent space to a coalition spokesperson dismissing the Amnesty report as ‘irresponsible and an insult’. But if BBC News was genuinely impartial, for the past few months it would have regularly headlined the destruction wreaked by the US-led coalition, with particular emphasis on the massive civilian death toll. Instead, this BBC headline said so much about its coalition-friendly stance:

‘Battle for Mosul: Iraq army mops up final IS pockets’

The article’s opening line was:

‘The Iraqi army has been mopping up the last pockets of resistance from Islamic State (IS) militants in Mosul, after a long battle to recapture the city.’

And how many civilians had been killed by these US-backed forces in ‘liberating’ the city? The piece did not say.

On March 17 this year, as many as 240 civilians were killed in an air strike on Mosul by the coalition. Patrick Cockburn reported that three buildings were reduced to rubble, while many people were seeking refuge in cellars.

For months before and after this atrocity, BBC News had featured several reports from its correspondent Jonathan Beale who was ’embedded’ with Iraqi troops. These pieces had titles like ‘On the ground with Iraqi forces in battle for Mosul’, and they were sprinkled with propaganda phrases such as:

‘The US-led coalition appears confident that fighters of the so-called Islamic State (IS) will be defeated in Mosul.’

‘a brutal fight for every street.’

‘The troops both battle hardened and battle weary.’

‘We hear coalition aircraft overhead. Then a whoosh and a thud, followed by an explosion…There’s another whoosh, thud and boom and then a plume of smoke from an air strike.’

‘No-one can question the bravery of the Iraqi forces.’

‘this is unforgiving, urban warfare and for the Iraqi forces there is still a mountain to climb.’

This was a bang-bang style of ‘journalism’ that obscured or blanked the deaths of civilians being killed in the ‘Battle for Mosul’, as the BBC News television studio graphic called the massive bombardment, time after time, for months on end. It was always ‘Battle for Mosul’; never ‘US air strike massacres civilians’ or ‘US seeks hegemony in the Middle East’. It’s Good (‘Us’) vs Evil (‘Them’). The BBC website offered a single article, titled ‘Can civilian deaths be avoided in RAF strikes on IS?’, as a pitiful ‘balance’ to the rolling barrage of pro-coalition propaganda. Tellingly, Beale’s piece revealed its propaganda stance in closing with the perspective of RAF Air Commodore Johnny Stringer who said:

‘We have an opponent who just hates us and everything we stand for. We have to deal with that and defeat them militarily. And that is why we’re here.’

Beale ended the article with a line of his own, indicating that the BBC correspondent stood full-square behind the coalition:

‘They are fighting a brutal enemy, who unlike them, has no worries about killing civilians.’

Once the ‘last pockets of resistance’ in Mosul had been ‘mopped up’, the BBC could then publish a typically whitewashing report on its website headlined, ‘Mosul: Iraq PM in city to celebrate victory over IS’. And, of course, no questions were asked about the democratic credentials of the Iraqi government that had ‘liberated’ Mosul. Does Iraq have free elections, a free press and full respect for human rights? These issues have been of little or no concern for the corporate media since a puppet government was installed, amid much PR posturing, in 2004.


‘A Heroic Fight Against Terrorists’

The propaganda pitch of BBC News towards government power is longstanding; indeed it was hard-wired from its Reithian origins, as we have pointed out many times. Sometimes this propaganda bias is most obvious when its news reporters examine the propaganda of Official Enemies, blithely unaware of how it reflects on themselves and their own employer.

On December 15, 2016, Moscow correspondent Sarah Rainsford delivered a classic example on Aleppo in this segment shown on BBC News at One (the BBC also published this article).

Consider her words:

‘On the ground in Syria, Russia’s special forces – shown here for the first time on state television. The commentary is all about a heroic fight against terrorists. No mention here of any civilians caught up in the bloodshed.’

Imagine Rainsford saying this of Western reporting on Mosul:

‘The commentary is all about a heroic fight against terrorists. No mention here of any civilians caught up in the bloodshed.’

Then, to camera, Rainsford said:

‘For Russia, the conflict in Syria was always about projecting its power and influence. As the West stalled [sic], Moscow moved in. The message to Russians here that they were helping to protect the world from terrorism. The message to the world, that Russia under Vladimir Putin is a political and military power to be reckoned with.’

A BBC News reporter would never point out that war in the Middle East is about the US ‘projecting its power and influence’.

Rainsford continued, over library footage of the severe damage done by Russian forces to Grozny:

‘As to brutal bombing campaigns, Russia has done that before. This is not Aleppo, but Grozny in Chechnya – a city flattened in what President Putin also called a war on terror. In this latest conflict, he’s faced no calls at home for restraint.’

Finally, over a clip of ISIS fighters with captured Russian arsenal at Palmyra:

‘But, with all the focus on Aleppo, this happened. Russian troops were forced to abandon their positions in Palmyra, as militants from ISIS moved in. Recapturing this Syrian city was also once trumpeted by Russia as a great victory.’

Can you imagine BBC News ever doing a comparable segment analysing US or British propaganda about the assault on Mosul? Or Sirte in Libya? Or Fallujah? Or Belgrade? Have BBC News journalists not, in fact, effectively ‘trumpeted’ each of these ‘as a great victory’ for the West?

So, it is a worthy task for the BBC to critically assess the propaganda of the evil enemy, but not that of ‘our’ own side. Another standard feature of BBC News, as with all corporate media, is to identify with the victims of Official Enemy military action, far more than with victims of ‘our’ military action. Thus, last year, Bridget Kendall, could report in this fashion for the BBC:

‘What looks like a Russian fighter jet in the skies over northern Syria. And then this. Suspected cluster bombs. Imagine being in one of those buildings, apparently north of the city of Aleppo yesterday.’ (BBC News at Ten, February 1, 2016; clip captured by Media Lens reader Daniel Collins in this tweet; our emphasis)

A BBC News reporter would never invite the audience to ‘imagine being in one of those buildings’ – in Mosul or Baghdad or Gaza, for instance – hit by ‘our’ bombs or those of a major ally, such as Israel.

As with the BBC, so with the Guardian. Consider a Guardian editorial last October highlighting a quote by Assad on Aleppo that he had to:

‘keep cleaning this area and to push the terrorists to Turkey to go back to where they come from, or to kill them’.

The editorial continued:

‘International diplomacy pays lip service to the idea that such actions are, if proven, war crimes.’

And what, then, of Mosul?

‘The west, too, faces a chance to demonstrate that it does respect the constraints of international law. Soon western-backed Iraqi forces will aim to retake Mosul, Islamic State’s last major stronghold in the country. The conduct of the battle will determine whether victory comes at an unacceptable humanitarian cost.’

The Guardian seems to have missed the fact that the West has, for decades, regularly flouted, rather than respected, ‘the constraints of international law’. This blindness and ignorance was already obvious from the title of the Guardian editorial which included the tragi-comic plea, ‘The crimes committed in the wars of the Middle East must in the end be punished. Meanwhile the west must not add to them‘ [our emphasis]; as though the West had not, in fact, already contributed the overwhelming bulk of crimes in the Middle East.

We have not been able to find a single Guardian editorial since October 2016 appraising the US-led assault on Mosul. The contrast with its anguished comments on Aleppo is stark. In June 2016, the paper gave its view on the battle for Aleppo, saying simply: ‘stop it now’, and describing it as ‘an urgent humanitarian catastrophe’.

In October 2016, a Guardian editorial stated that ‘Russian and Syrian warplanes above Aleppo appear to be intentionally targeting civilians’, and demanded the enforcement of international law. And, in November 2016, the Guardian spoke of ‘the West’s grim failure’ to stop ‘a humanitarian and military disaster’. The editorial also noted that:

‘Russia’s propaganda machine is hard at work alongside the Syrian regime’s, trying to frame these events as the “liberation” of a population described as hostages of Islamic terrorists.’

Again, to emphasise, at the time of writing, there has been no Guardian editorial examining whether the ‘victory’ of the US-led coalition in Mosul has ‘come at an unacceptable humanitarian cost’; or exposing the West’s propaganda campaign promoting ‘liberation’. It’s no surprise. After all, that would come too close to demolishing the myth of benevolent Western power; and the Guardian’s own role in propping up the fiction.



Neil Clark rightly observes that:

‘The very different ways in which the respective ‘liberations’ [of Aleppo and Mosul] were portrayed tells us much about the way war propaganda works in the so-called free world.’

The bottom line is that what we are seeing in Iraq, and much of the rest of the world, is an imperial Western project targeting countries that 1) do not conform to the West’s dictates; and 2) are unable to defend themselves adequately (unlike China, Iran or nuclear-armed North Korea, for example).

Clark notes that:

‘The truth of what has been happening is too shocking and too terrible ever to be admitted in the Western mainstream media. Namely, that since the demise of the Soviet Union, the US and its allies have been picking off independent, resource-rich, strategically important countries one by one.’

David Whyte and Greg Muttitt point out that when the UK invaded Iraq, the Middle East country had nearly a tenth of the world’s oil reserves, and that government documents ‘explicitly state’ oil was a motive for the war. But the Chilcot Report shamefully avoided this evidence and ignored oil as a driving force for the invasion.

As Mark Curtis says, after an illegal invasion and one million dead Iraqis, UK trade minister Greg Hands recently had the gall to boast that:

‘UK companies and brands are already well established in Iraq: from BP and Standard Chartered to G4S and JLR’

The minister added:

‘Iraq has the world’s fourth largest proven oil reserves, sixth largest gas reserves, and huge untapped potential across both.’

The minister proclaimed proudly that UK firms are ‘strategically well-placed’ to exploit this massive potential.

Could the real motivation for the 2003 war be any clearer?

Moreover, Perpetual War is a highly lucrative business for arms manufacturers and the military machine in the West. As Bill Van Auken observes:

‘US commanders have made it clear that they don’t see American forces leaving the country [Iraq] in the foreseeable future. And the Pentagon has asked for nearly $1.3 billion in its 2018 budget to fund continued support for Iraqi security forces.’

And let’s not forget that UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia have been deemed ‘lawful’ by the High Court ‘after seeing secret evidence’. With the nightmare of a US/UK-supported, Saudi-led assault on Yemen – beset by mass starvation, poverty and a cholera epidemic – the appalling reality of Western ‘democracy’ is once again exposed.

DC and DE