Propagandising For War – Gareth Porter Responds To The BBC Today Programme On Syria
A report published by the London School of Economics last month found extreme levels of bias in BBC reporting. The ‘impartial’ BBC’s early evening news was almost five times more likely to depict Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in a negative light. In the time period studied (September 1 – November 1, 2015), no headlines on this key news programme presented Corbyn in a positive light.
But this is a mere drop in the ocean of the corporation’s pro-establishment bias. It could hardly be more obvious that BBC news reports, comment pieces and discussions are overwhelmingly hostile to US-UK government enemies like Russia, Iran, Venezuela, North Korea and Syria, and overwhelmingly favourable to the United States and Israel. It has long been clear to us that BBC journalists perceive this, not as bias, but as an accurate depiction of a world that really is divided into well-intentioned Western ‘good guys’ and their enemies, the ‘bad guys’.
On August 20, the BBC website featured a Radio 4 Today programme discussion hosted by former political editor Nick Robinson interviewing BBC World Affairs Editor John Cody Fidler-Simpson and Dr. Karin von Hippel, a former State Department official dealing with US strategy against Islamic State.
The discussion was introduced with the following written text, which was repeated in slightly altered form in Robinson’s spoken introduction:
‘Exactly five years ago President Obama called on the Syrian President Bashir-Al-Assad to step down but today he is still in power.’
The prominence and repetition of the observation of course conferred great significance. The implication: for the BBC, Obama is not just the leader of another country, he is a kind of World President with the authority to call on other leaders to ‘step down’. In reality, Obama made his demand, not in the name of the United Nations, or of the Syrian people, but because, as President George H.W. Bush once declared: ‘what we say goes’.
In his introduction, Robinson described a disturbing image that ‘has gone viral on social media’ of a Syrian child allegedly injured by Russian or Syrian bombing. The child, five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, is depicted sitting between Obama and Putin. Robinson noted that one of these images carried the sarcastic caption: ‘Thank you for keeping me safe.’ We have found the image but not that caption.
One reasonable interpretation of Robinson’s introduction, then: five years ago, Obama called on Assad to go, but ‘failed’ to follow through in making that happen – ‘little Omran’, and numerous other Syrian civilians, are continuing to suffer as a result. Adam Johnson writes that the viral picture of Daqneesh has ‘amped up calls for direct US intervention against the Syrian government’ made by numerous ‘laptop bombardiers’ ‘jumping from one outrage in urgent need of US bombs to the next’. The BBC’s Today programme discussion can be understood as a further example of this media herd behaviour.
John Simpson agreed with Robinson that Obama had been keen to avoid ‘the kind of dreadful errors’ – he meant crimes – that George W. Bush had committed in Iraq, and so had ‘wanted to stay out of things’. According to Simpson, Obama’s failure to intervene in Syria has been a ‘disaster’. After all, Russia recently ‘managed to attack Syria with its planes from the airfields of Iran’. As investigative journalist Gareth Porter notes below, the Syrian government in fact invited Russian military support, so Russia can hardly be described as attacking Syria. Simpson, by contrast, argued that Russo-Iranian cooperation was ‘a link up which would have caused absolute consternation in the United States, and worldwide, just a few years ago’. In other words, the world’s sole superpower has proven powerless to stop the kind of military cooperation it practices the world over all the time – how awful!
Simpson’s imperial sympathies have been aired before on the BBC, notably in October 2014:
‘The world (well, most of it) wants an active, effective America to act as its policeman, sorting out the problems smaller countries can’t face alone.’
Interfering In A Big Way
In a classic example of BBC imbalance, Dr. von Hippel then supported Robinson’s and Simpson’s interpretation of the cause of the Syria disaster, noting of Obama that, ‘as John Simpson was saying, he didn’t believe that America interfering in a big way would help… he was never convinced that force, or greater use of force, would make a difference. Now, I personally disagree with that…’.
Von Hippel went so far as to assert that ‘there were many things you could do between sending 100,000 troops in and nothing’. The comment was ambiguous but, in the context of the discussion, invited listeners to conclude that Obama had indeed done next to nothing in Syria. And yet, von Hippel herself noted that US special forces are working with anti-Assad groups in Syria and Turkey, and that this and other support ‘has made a difference’.
In fact this is only the tip of the iceberg. In June 2015, the Washington Post reported of the US:
‘At $1 billion, Syria-related operations account for about $1 of every $15 in the CIA’s overall budget… US officials said the CIA has trained and equipped nearly 10,000 fighters sent into Syria over the past several years — meaning that the agency is spending roughly $100,000 per year for every anti-Assad rebel who has gone through the program.’
The US media watch website, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, added some context:
‘In addition to this, the Obama administration has engaged in crippling sanctions against the Assad government, provided air support for those looking to depose him, incidentally funneled arms to ISIS, and not incidentally aligned the CIA-backed Free Syrian Army with Al Qaeda. Regardless of one’s position on Syria — or whether they think the US is somehow secretly in alliance with Assad, as some advance — one thing cannot be said: that the US has “done nothing in Syria.” This is historically false.’
Ignoring these entirely uncontroversial facts, Robinson observed that, ‘there were a series of occasions’ in which David Cameron ‘tried to persuade Obama – others were doing it, too – to take some form of military action, and at each stage he didn’t want to do it.’ ‘Yes’, Simpson replied, ‘I think that David Cameron was really frustrated towards the end…’.
Obama, we are to believe, then, repeatedly refused ‘to take some form of military action’ and is even guilty of ‘silence, almost’ on Syria. Robinson then affirmed the whole narrative:
‘So, in other words… this is a disaster, not just for the people of Syria, but a strategic disaster for the United States – makes them look weak.’
If there was any doubt what ‘strong’ means to Robinson, it was removed when he concluded the discussion by asking Simpson to respond to potential listener criticism:
‘Just address those people who we know are listening at home who’ll go: “Haven’t they learned anything? We know that military intervention in the Middle East always produces a worse disaster than the one that we started with.”‘
In a tragicomic, Rumsfeldian reply, Simpson acknowledged that the conflict is ‘fiendishly complicated, Nick, really, as you know’, adding:
‘Whatever you do is going to have tremendous downsides. But that doesn’t mean to say that everything you do, or don’t do, um, is, is, is… simply going to be the worst thing you can possibly do. There are some things that are worse than others.’
Perhaps it takes a World Affairs Editor to join the big picture dots with such insight. Simpson continued:
‘And I think, sitting on your hands watching Putin running away with the whole thing is the worst possible thing that Obama could have done, and I think it’s going to be a stain on his reputation permanently.’
This reminded us of the many sociopathic comments that viewed the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq as primarily a problem for the American brand, with tragic implications for the reputations of George W. Bush and Tony Blair.
Any Flavour You Like – Gareth Porter Responds
We were so astonished by the propaganda bias and gross omissions in this BBC discussion – with literally no balance challenging the false consensus that Obama had been ‘sitting on his hands’ on Syria, even doing ‘nothing’ – that we sent the discussion to Gareth Porter, one of the most knowledgeable and honest reporters on Syria. We expected a paragraph or two in reply, but Porter felt moved to respond at some length:
‘The BBC interview is so one-sided and distorts the most basic realities of the issue in Syria that it is a caricature of the media propagandizing for war. It has offered the public two flavors of essentially neoconservative thinking — one perhaps closer to Bush administration thinking, the other closer to the views of Hillary Clinton.
‘John Simpson and Karin von Hippel both score the Obama administration’s policy for failing to exert more power in Syria and thus allowing Russia to play a dominant power role in the conflict. Simpson is scandalized by the fact that Obama allowed Russia, which he calls a “second-rate” or even “third-rate” country to “run away with the whole thing” in Syria, which he calls “the worst possible thing Obama could have done”.
‘Von Hippel similarly laments the fact that Obama did not take steps to build up the Syrian armed opposition and has now allowed the Russians to play the role of peacemaker in Syria. She invokes the threat of a “power vacuum” in the Aleppo area because Obama did not intervene on the side of the armed opposition. That phrase recalls Hillary Clinton criticism of Obama’s Syrian policy for having created a “power vacuum” by refusing to support a proposed CIA program for building up the armed opposition when she was Secretary of State.
‘BBC listeners were not made aware of the crucial fact that Russia was able to play the role it has in Syria because it is intervening at the request of the Syrian government. Nor were they told that the Obama administration, on the other hand, has been seeking to overthrow the regime in cooperation with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which began in 2012 supplying arms to Islamic extremists who cooperated with al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, al Nusra Front.
‘By early 2013, it was already clear to close observers of the war that al Nusra Front was the dominant armed opposition organization in Syria. By 2016 none of the U.S.-supported armed groups were willing or able to fight without the full cooperation of al Nusra Front. That reality helps to explain why Russia, and not the United States, was better positioned to broker a ceasefire in 2016, and why the Obama administration has been unwilling or unable to get the opposition it supports to go along with it.
‘As for von Hippel’s complaint about Obama’s failure to arm the opposition earlier, she should know very well (because Hillary Clinton acknowledges it in her memoirs) that Obama’s argument to his advisers was that the United States should not repeat the mistake it made in Afghanistan, of arming anti-regime rebels only to contribute to the rise of al Qaeda. Since there was never a time when that was not a very serious threat, the argument for an aggressive CIA covert operation in Syria was always highly questionable — except, perhaps to those seeking to make a career out of interventionism, like von Hippel. But von Hippel never even mentions the fact that a jihadist terrorist organization that is officially regarded by the United States as a primary global security threat is the most powerful political-military force seeking to overthrow the regime. Nor does either von Hippel or Simpson acknowledge that the Obama administration sold 15,000 TOW anti-tank missiles to Saudi Arabia in late 2013 knowing that hundreds or thousands would be sent to armed opposition groups in Syria. That was a very risky move, given the near certainty that large numbers of those highly effective weapons soon ended up in the hands of al Nusra Front.
‘In the context of the Syrian war in 2016, with a powerful al Qaeda-led military coalition that had gained control over an enormous territory and planning to declare an Islamic emirate in northwest Syria, the argument that Obama is risking a “power vacuum” in Aleppo is the height of dishonesty. The only real “power vacuum” that is being risked is the one that would be created if the al-Qaeda-led coalition were to be successful in defeating the Assad regime. Then Syria would either have a jihadist terrorist state in Damascus or would experience a civil war between ISIS and al Qaeda similar to the civil war among jihadists in Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew.
‘That outcome — not the success of Russia in brokering a peace agreement that keeps the Syrian government intact — would be the “worst possible thing that Obama could have done”. But BBC listeners have been spared having to deal with such troublesome realities.’ (Gareth Porter, email to Media Lens, August 22, 2016)
None of this should come as a surprise. BBC ‘balance’ typically involves the selection of interviewees guaranteed to accept false propaganda claims made by the interviewer. This is how elite media manufacture the kind of false consensus that is vital for the proper functioning of a ‘managed democracy’.