Are we able to prove the existence of a corporate media campaign to undermine British democracy? Media analysis is not hard science, but in this alert we provide compelling evidence that such a campaign does indeed exist.
Compare coverage of comments made on Syria by a spokesman for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in October 2016 and by UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson in January 2017.
Boris Johnson’s ‘Triple Flip’ On Assad
There is little need for us to remind readers just how often Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has been described as ‘a monster’ and ‘a dictator’ in the UK press. Assad has of course routinely been reviled as a tyrant and genocidal killer, compared with Hitler and held responsible, with Putin, for the mass killing and devastation in Syria. The role of the US, UK, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and others has often been ignored altogether.
Assad has been UK journalism’s number one hate figure for years, on a par with earlier enemies like Slobodan Milosevic, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi (arguably, Assad is essentially the same archetypal ‘Enemy’ in the minds of many corporate journalists).
In December 2015, the Daily Telegraph reported that Boris Johnson accepted Assad was a monster, but that he had made a further remarkable comment:
‘Let’s deal with the Devil: we should work with Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad in Syria.’
Johnson wrote that ‘we cannot afford to be picky about our allies’. And so:
‘Am I backing the Assad regime, and the Russians, in their joint enterprise to recapture that amazing site [Palmyra from occupation by Isis]? You bet I am.’
Seven months later, after he had been made UK foreign secretary, Johnson exactly reversed this position:
‘I will be making clear my view that the suffering of the Syrian people will not end while Assad remains in power. The international community, including Russia, must be united on this.’
Six months further forward in time, in January 2017, Johnson’s position flipped once again. The Independent reported:
‘President Bashar al-Assad should be allowed to stand for election to remain in power in Syria, Boris Johnson has said in a significant shift of the Government’s position.’
Johnson was not coy about admitting the reason for this further flip:
‘I see downsides and I see risks in us going in, doing a complete flip flop, supporting the Russians, Assad. But I must also be realistic about the way the landscape has changed and it may be that we will have to think afresh about how to handle this.’
The changed ‘landscape’, of course, is a new Trump presidency that is famously opposed to Obama’s war for regime change in Syria. The Mail reported how Johnson had recalled a trip to Baghdad after the Iraq war when a local Christian had told him:
‘It is better sometimes to have a tyrant than not to have a ruler at all.’
Johnson’s observation on this comment:
‘There was wisdom… in what he said and that I’m afraid is the dilemma…’
When we at Media Lens have even highlighted the US-UK role in arming, funding and fighting the Syrian war, and have discussed the extent of US-UK media propaganda – while holding not even the tiniest candle for Assad – we have been crudely denounced as ‘pro-Assad useful idiots’, as ‘just another leftist groupuscle shilling for tyrants’ that ‘defends repression by President Assad’.
Other commentators have suffered similar abuse for merely pointing out, as Patrick Cockburn recently noted in the London Review of Books, that ‘fabricated news and one-sided reporting have taken over the news agenda [on Syria] to a degree probably not seen since the First World War’.
Nothing could be easier, then, than to imagine the corporate media lining up to roast Boris Johnson for what simply had to be, from their perspective, the ultimate example of someone who ‘defends repression by President Assad’: actually suggesting that the media’s great hate figure might contest elections and even remain in power.
We can imagine any number of spokespeople for Syrian ‘rebel’ groups, human rights organisations and others, enthusiastically supplying damning quotes for news and comment pieces. We can imagine the headlines:
‘Anger at Johnson’s “shameful apologetics” for Syria regime’
‘Boris slammed for “monstrous” U-Turn On Assad’
‘Johnson’s sympathy for Assad the devil shames us all’
And so on…
A second critical theme cries out for inclusion. Donald Trump has been relentlessly lambasted as racist, sexist, fascist, and in fact as a more exotically coiffured version of Hitler. Given that Johnson openly admits the UK government has reversed policy on hate figure Assad to appease hate figure Trump, the headlines are again easy to imagine:
‘UK Government slammed for “selling out ethics and the Syrian people” to appease Trump regime’
‘”Britons never, never will be slaves”? Boris Johnson’s bended knee before Trump shames us all’
And so on…
Instead, these were the actual headlines reporting Johnson’s policy shift:
The Telegraph (January 27):
‘Armed Forces could have peace role in Syria, suggests Boris’
The Guardian (January 26):
‘Boris Johnson signals shift in UK policy on Syria’s Assad’
A comment piece in the Guardian was titled:
‘Theresa May looks for new friends among the world’s strongmen; Saturday’s meeting with Erdogan in Turkey shows how Britain is re-ordering its international priorities after the Brexit vote’
No talk of apologetics, shame, or supping with the devil; just Britain ‘re-ordering its international priorities’.
The i-Independent (January 27):
‘Johnson signals shift in policy over Assad’s future’
The Times (January 27):
‘Johnson: Britain may accept Assad staying in power’
The headline above an opinion piece in the same paper (February 1) merely counselled caution:
‘May will have to take a stand over Russia. In this new age of realpolitik, Britain must beware bending to Trump’s shifting foreign policy’
The article was careful not to criticise Johnson: ‘It would be wrong to pin’ his Syrian ‘triple flip’ on ‘Borisian dilettantism. We have entered an era of intensified realpolitik… That means rethinking everything…’
The Sun (January 27), having raged apoplectically at Assad for years, would have been expected to rage now at Johnson. The headline:
‘UK TROOPS FOR SYRIA’
The only comment:
‘In a break with UK policy [Johnson] also said a political solution might see tyrant Bashar al-Assad allowed to stand in UN-supervised elections.’
The Daily Mail (January 26):
‘Assad could run in a future Syrian presidential election, Boris Johnson says in shift of UK foreign policy’
Clearly, then, there was nothing the least bit excitable or outraged in any of these headlines – the news was presented as undramatic and uncontroversial.
But the point we want to emphasis is that, in fact, none of these news reports contained a single word of criticism of Johnson. They included not one comment from any critical source attacking Johnson for siding with the press’s great bête noire of the last several years, Assad, in bowing to their great bête orange, Trump.
Jeremy Corbyn’s Spokesman ‘Shames His Party And His Country’
Consider, by contrast, coverage of comments made on Syria by Corbyn’s press spokesman, former Guardian journalist Seumas Milne, in a weekly meeting with journalists last October. This is what Milne said:
‘The focus on Russian atrocities or Syrian army atrocities sometimes diverts attention from other atrocities that are taking place.
‘Independent assessments are that there have been very large-scale civilian casualties as a result of the US-led coalition bombing.
‘There are several cases of large numbers of civilian deaths in single attacks and there hasn’t been so much attention on those atrocities or those casualties.
‘Both the US and British governments have been reluctant to accept any independent assessment of what’s taking place as a result of those campaigns.’
These were rational, reasonable comments. Milne recognised that there had indeed been Russian and Syrian government atrocities. As one would expect of the political opposition, he also pressed for greater attention to US-UK atrocities – horrors for which we are accountable as democratic citizens and potentially able to influence through democratic pressures.
The difference in press coverage from that afforded to Boris Johnson’s comment on Syria is immediately obvious in many of the headlines:
The Independent (October 12):
‘Jeremy Corbyn aide branded “disgraceful” after saying focus on Russian atrocities in Syria are a distraction’
The Telegraph (October 13):
‘Anger at Jeremy Corbyn’s claim that US is as bad as Russia in Syria’
The Times (October 14):
‘In Corbyn’s warped world, the US is the enemy; The failure of the Labour leader’s spokesman to condemn Russia’s actions in Syria is outrageous and shames his party’
Philip Collins wrote:
‘Unless Mr Corbyn sacks him, Mr Milne must be thought of as his master’s voice.’ The Labour party was ‘shamed by this’.
A Daily Mail headline (October 11) quoted Brendan Cox, widower of the murdered Labour MP Jo Cox:
‘”This isn’t just wrong, it’s absolutely disgraceful”: Fury as Jeremy Corbyn’s top aide compares British and US bombing of ISIS terrorists to Russia’s carpet-bombing of Syria’
A second Daily Mail headline (October 13) raged:
‘Putin’s useful idiots: Warped, deluded, ignorant. Corbyn’s support for Russia shames his party and his country’
Dominic Sandbrook wrote:
‘In his malignancy, mendacity and hypocrisy, in his narcissism and anti-patriotism, he is betraying not only the history of the Labour Party but the basic values of this country… Mr Milne and his Stop The War friends are a cancer at the heart of our political and intellectual life. Every day their influence grows, the weaker our democracy becomes.’
‘What a disgrace for our democracy. What dishonour for the Labour Party, what shame for Britain.’
Another lengthy Mail piece (October 14), smearing Milne’s entire life, was headlined:
‘Corbyn’s sinister puppetmaster: Seamus Milne champions Stalin, wouldn’t condemn Bin Laden… and spoke up for Lee Rigby’s killers’
The Express headline (October 13):
‘Corbyn advisor slammed for comparing Putin’s onslaught of Syria to British bombing of ISIS – Jeremy Corbyn’s chief aide is in hot water over comments comparing the Russian onslaught in Syria to the British and US-led bombing of ISIS.’
Not all of the headlines led with the angry criticism. The Guardian, Milne’s own former newspaper, held back (October 12):
‘Protests at US embassy as valid as at Russia’s, says Corbyn spokesman’
But this report also included damning criticism:
‘Labour backbenchers, some of whom had confronted Corbyn over his stance on Syria… reacted angrily to his spokesman’s remarks.
‘The Barrow in Furness MP, John Woodcock, said: “The whole world is looking at what Russian helicopters and jets are doing in Syria, and pleading with them to stop. If this is really Labour’s position, it puts us in a group with Russia, North Korea, and probably that’s it.”‘
The Politics Home website reported:
‘Labour former defence minister Kevan Jones branded Mr Milne “an apologist for the Russian regime”. Jones said the comments were “an insult to our brave servicemen and women but is clearly aimed to excuse the abhorrent behaviour of Russia”.
Conor McGinn, Labour MP for St Helens, described Milne’s comments as ‘bankrupt thinking’.
The Telegraph report cited above began:
‘The United States has angrily dismissed claims on Jeremy Corbyn’s behalf suggesting that America bears as much responsibility for civilian deaths in Syria as Russia does.’
The report added:
‘Labour’s shadow foreign and defence secretaries appeared to distance themselves from the remarks, while the party’s MPs called for Mr Milne to be sacked.’
The paper also quoted the damning comment from Brendan Cox, (see above).
The BBC cited Labour MP John Woodcock’s outrage:
‘This absurdity seems like a deliberate provocation, unworthy of our leader and our party.’
The Observer reported:
‘Lord (David) Blunkett said yesterday that Corbyn should ask whether Milne was helping Labour get back into government and, if not, then Milne should stand down.
‘”What does Jeremy Corbyn think are the benefits [of Milne] to the Labour party and not just himself? How does he think this is going to help Labour get back into power? If he can’t answer those questions, he [Milne] shouldn’t be there.”‘
Conclusion – An Attack On Democracy
From the ‘mainstream’ media perspective, Milne’s comments must rank far below Johnson’s as an ‘apologetic’ for Assad. Milne was not defending Assad, merely calling for greater attention to US-UK atrocities. Johnson, on the other hand, was declaring that UK government policy was now to support Assad’s participation in elections and possible continued leadership.
If journalists were incensed by Milne’s ‘apologetic’, then, by their own logic, they should be exploding in outrage at a change in government policy that will have real consequences for the Syrian people that are supposed to be the media’s chief concern.
How to explain the ferocious criticism of Milne’s innocuous comments and the complete absence of any criticism of Johnson’s policy shift?
The answer is clear enough: the corporate media system is ideologically aligned against an authentically left-wing Labour leader, is working to undermine his reputation, and to protect the reputation of the Conservative government. It is equally clear that the corporate media’s outrage at Milne and its supposed compassion for the Syrian people are manufactured, fake.
Democracy is not compatible with mass media that systematically headline and highlight angry criticism of left-wing politicians while excluding criticism of the right-wing politicians opposing them. The truth is that the UK corporate press is working relentlessly to crush democratic freedom of choice threatening elite interests. Forget ‘fake news’, the corporate media system is itself fake. It is primarily a conduit, not for news and views, but for control.