Exposed: The pro-Assad useful idiots in our midst

Rupert Read argues that the pro-Assad useful idiots at Medialens has let its anti-American dogma put it on the wrong side of the Arab Spring.

Rupert Read is a reader in the UEA School of Philosophy and East of England Green party co-ordinator

I have long been an active supporter of Medialens; like many others, I have supported them with money, time, tips, and I have been proud to have done so. For they have done very important groundbreaking work over the years challenging the inanities and distortions of the ‘mainstream’ media.

They have, for example, written important critiques of mainstream media coverage of dangerous climate change, of Iraq’s body count, of the corporate nature of most of our media, and much more besides. They have held the corporate media to account time and again. They ought to be saluted for all of that.

It is therefore with a sense of deep regret (as well as of some foreboding) that I have finally to write to address the ways in which, lately, some of the wheels seem to be coming off their wagon.


An early warning sign perhaps was their long-running spat with George Monbiot, over the Rwandan genocide and the terrible atrocities in Bosnia. But things have taken a further and more serious turn with their dogmatic opposition to any Western intervention in the Arab World, in this astonishing year of revolutions.

I found Medialens’s opposition to UN involvement in the Libya situation very troubling. Like various others on the Left, such as John Pilger and Moronwatch, the attitude that seems to have been taken is one of ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend’.

Medialens and Pilger have found themselves forced to ignore the overwhelming evidence that the Libyan revolutionaries, when their backs were against the wall and they were being threatened with massacre by Gaddafi, backed Western intervention (though not by ground troops).

Certainly, this is true of the Libyans I know personally. One Benghazian who had been on the streets there in February said to me (on his return from there to England) that he didn’t care why the West was thinking of intervening to stop Gaddafi from attacking Benghazi, but simply that they had to intervene, to stop a revolution-crushing bloodbath.

This was a man who had stood shoulder-to*shoulder with me in the campaign to stop the West attacking Iraq in 2003. Because the two situations are profoundly different.

It is perfectly respectable to be against Western intervention in the Arab World. Or to take up an absolutist position of non-violence.

What is hard to respect are the following two attitudes: firstly, the pretence that all interventions are as bad as each other; that there are no relevant distinguishing features between, say, the internationally-illegal lies-based attack on Iraq and the UN-backed operation in Libya which occurred in response to indigenous calls for help; and secondly, the use of cherry-picked sources to support such pretences.

The latter crucially undermines the organisation which does the cherry-picking.

What finally prompted me to write this article was deeply-dismaying ‘media alert’ from Medialens, focusing on Syria. In this alert, Medialens blatantly cherry-pick their sources. They begin by uncritically quoting an economist, Michel Chossudovsky, who argues, shamefully, that:

“The ultimate objective of the Syria protest movement, through media lies and fabrications, is to create divisions within Syrian society.”

Chossudovsky is a totally unreliable individual, who cites Israeli news sources with known biases on the subject of Syria uncritically, wildly alleges Mossad plots to foment rebellion in Daraa, and so forth. He is the kind of source who Medialens would delight – quite rightly – in rubbishing, if he were uncritically citing (say) Israeli and media propaganda in relation to the Israel-Palestine ‘peace process’.

But, because he is one of only a tiny handful of authors arguing what Medialens seemingly want to hear – that the Syrian uprising is not an unbelievably-brave, overwhelmingly non-violent, authentic revolution-in-process, against one of the most repellent regimes in the world – they use him and tacitly praise him.

Why are Medialens endorsing such appalling tacitly-pro-Assad propaganda? I hypothesise that it is because they do not want to even consider the possibility that there might be a just case for intervening in Syria under the heading of the responsibility to protect. Because they insist on dogmatically opposing anything that the West does, and refusing to consider the possibility that there are authentic revolutions going on in Libya and Syria.

Who would Medialens have cited, if they had not been cherry-picking?

They would probably have started with the International Crisis Group reports. These meticulous reports detail the astonishingly long-lasting non-violent nature of most of Syria’s revolution, given the incredible provocations that the peaceful demonstrators are undergoing every day, including people being killed by the regime every single day.

My wife, Juliette Harkin, is currently undertaking a study for publication with Westminster University, researching the use social media by Syrian revolutionaries. The very clear narrative of these Facebook posts etc. is of non-violent struggle.

The International Crisis Group reports do not shy away from acknowledging that there are gradually-growing elements of an armed insurgency in Syria; not surprisingly, given the government’s absolute refusal to stop murdering and torturing its own people, or to offer any genuine reforms whatsoever.

Medialens meanwhile quote Jeremy Salt approvingly, as follows:

‘There is no doubt… that armed groups operating from behind the screen of the demonstrations have no interest in reform. They want to destroy the government.’

What is so suspect about this remark is the implication that there is some prospect in Syria under Assad of ‘reform’. While the Syrian demonstrators first called for ‘reform’, they have now overwhelmingly come to back the overthrow of the government: because it is clear that it is unreformable. Its willingness to kill and torture without mercy is one among many proofs of this.

So there is no longer anything at all contentious about wanting to destroy the Assad government. The only question is how long it will be possible to go on seeking to do so non-violently, when the government meets every demonstration with live fire and the most hideous torture known to humankind.

It is extraordinary how the discipline of this mass movement of non-violent resistance has stood up under the most extraordinary provocation; the Assad regime makes Mubarak look a softie, by comparison. It is deeply-dismaying therefore that Medialens seek to paint the Syrian protesters as American stooges, and to spread unfounded allegation that Western weapons are being funnelled into the protesters’ camp.

There is some arms smuggling into Syria, although the evidence suggests that this is mostly small-scale, and is taking place mainly along long-established smuggling routes over the Lebanese border. Most of those smuggling arms may well be simply heads of families anxious to defend themselves, including probably mainly Alawis.

Medialens say that they are trying to draw attention to the armed element of the Syrian opposition which they say is having a veil drawn over it by the Western media. But the truth of the matter appears to be that the armed element of the Syrian opposition is even now only a small element of it.

By distorting what is happening in Syria – by giving credence to the ravings of the likes of Chossudovsky, and ignoring the respectable documentation of events in Syria by the likes of the ICG – Medialens is performing a gross disservice to us all, and above all to the Syrian protesters themselves.

I showed a colleague of mine, Odai Al-Zoubi – a Syrian democracy protester who was on the streets of his country this summer engaged in peaceful demonstrations, taking the risk every day of being beaten, tortured, killed (Friends of his who did the same have been tortured) – the Medialens material on Syria.

This was his response:

“The easy way is to see the world is in a black-white dichotomy. ‘Everything America supports is wrong.’ That’s it. I believe that that is lazy.

“The left can’t deal with the Arab Spring. This is very important. Being green or Marxist or leftist means for them anti-American. That’s it. Nothing more.

“Behind this is a racist attitude, suggesting that there is no successful authentic revolution anywhere in the world. If America supports the revolution, then the revolution is condemned. If America opposes the revolution, then it is praised. I am almost desperate with the left. For them, no one can do anything in the world without the help of America.

“Those who claim to be anti-American are the people who destroy everything in our understanding of the world, in order to be anti-American. Tacitly, they worship America. They believe that it controls the world… And they don’t believe that the farmers in Daraa don’t give a shit whether America support them or opposes them. The people in Daraa understand the world more than the leftists. They do things…

“Morover, the dogmatic leftists are immoral. They don’t stress that so many people were and are being tortured in Syria. Since Syria is anti-american, everything is fine.

“The future of the left is doomed if they don’t try to open their eyes. The Arab Spring should make them think outside the American/anti-american binary.”

Such a voice surely deserves to be taken seriously. I wonder what Medialens would make of it? And why such voices never appear in their alerts on Syria, Libya, etc.

My colleague Dr Phil Hutchinson, like me a long-time admirer and supporter of Medialens, has commented as follows:

“Let me try out an analogy: Notice how shopping, the act of, is in origins an act that is undertaken to serve a goal: buying things one needs.

“Later, under certain socio-economic conditions, it becomes an end in itself for many people. To shop is to enjoy oneself. People run up debts not because they need more stuff necessarily or because they think they need more stuff, or even because they will get pleasure from more stuff but because they have become addicted to the activity of shopping.

“I think there is an analogue in left politics: MediaLens have an insight, they have had many, but then they lose sight of that insight, and become addicted to a set of freefloating procedures. They are supposed to be about media-bias which they expose using the Chomskian ‘propaganda model’, but they are increasingly just parroting substantive moral or political claims of folks they like.

They’ve stopped being a lens on the media and started being a propaganda-machine themselves, more like an unfunny and unsentimental Michael Moore than the MediaLens of five years ago.

“One of the problems of the propaganda model is it can be used to uncover anything you want to uncover. It needs to be used by people who keep themselves honest and in check.”

It is not too late for Medialens to reconsider their dogmatic blanket opposition to Western action in relation to the Arab Spring. Caroline Lucas MP, leader of my party (the Greens), voted against supporting Britain’s role in the UN-backed action in Libya. But she at least had the good grace afterward to speak up about Western aid to oppressive regimes. It would be good to hear similar statements from Medialens.

Or would it? As Hutchinson remarks, things have reached a strange pass when the prime way that an organisation allegedly dedicated to hunting down bias in the mainstream media becomes known is not for its work in this capacity but rather for its own substantive political/moral position on conflicts in Bosnia, Libya, Syria, etc.

This point does rather suggest that Medialens needs to refocus its work: back onto the very necessary task of critiquing the corporate media for their biases, and away from (getting out of its depth in) attempts to analyse the precise nature of the historical and contemporary details of events that are the subjects of news stories. Medialens would be well-advised, in particular, to stop cherry-picking their sources in relation to Syria.

Bin Chossudovsky, and pay closer attention instead to groups like the International Crisis Group, which (unlike the sources Medialens rely on) has excellent on-the-ground sources in Syria.

If Medialens persist in ultra-low-quality work (i.e. in using terrible cherry-picked sources) which tacitly rubbishes the Syrian revolution, then they will join the company of John Pilger, ‘Stop the War’ and others who have failed to understand the new dynamic of the Arab Spring and the way that Western powers, whatever their motivations, have done something on balance good by intervening in Libya, and need now (as Turkey is) to be actively considering their options in relation to the horrifying situation in Syria.

The Syrian protesters were dismayed that the UN failed recently to act. There is a dire need for some form of action – perhaps an international solidarity movement, of people prepared to travel to Syria to put themselves on the line beside the revolutionaries? – to seek now to help the Syrian people.

I earnestly hope that Medialens will step back from the brink, and stop smearing the Syrian revolution by quoting nonsense from hopeless sources.

See also:

Syrian Uprising: YouTube clips show continued demonstrations after Hama massacreDaniel Elton, August 1st 2011

Syria, where innocence is no defenceDominic Browne, June 1st 2011

Syria: Footage from the frontlineDominic Browne, May 10th 2011

Syria: A nation bloody but defiantDominic Browne, May 6th 2011

Wave of unrest spreads to SyriaSeph Brown, March 19th 2011

26 Responses to “Exposed: The pro-Assad useful idiots in our midst”

  1. cgmentions

    Exposed: The pro-Assad useful idiots in our midst – Left Foot Forward: Left Foot ForwardExposed: The pro-Assad u… //t.co/v5WMQfzI

  2. Oliver Kamm

    A @medialens supporter (Green candidate at Norwich by-election) appalled by its backing for Assad & lunatic sources: //t.co/WHCZO27w

  3. Stephen Daisley

    A @medialens supporter (Green candidate at Norwich by-election) appalled by its backing for Assad & lunatic sources: //t.co/WHCZO27w

  4. Max Dunbar

    A Syrian pro democracy protestor and ex supporter slam @medialens over its pro-Assad coverage (via @OliverKamm) //t.co/NUrICpGt

  5. ianbirrell

    Fine piece attacking absurd @medialens by supporter infuriated by its stupid stance on Libya & Syria //t.co/I1PSSYJ1 (h/t @OliverKamm)

  6. Patrick Osgood

    Fine piece attacking absurd @medialens by supporter infuriated by its stupid stance on Libya & Syria //t.co/I1PSSYJ1 (h/t @OliverKamm)

  7. Jon was in France

    Fine piece attacking absurd @medialens by supporter infuriated by its stupid stance on Libya & Syria //t.co/I1PSSYJ1 (h/t @OliverKamm)

  8. Saint Just Coz

    Great critique of @medialens' stance on Libya/Syria (and of a broader swathe of the left more generally). //t.co/zuUzaGKG

  9. Damian Counsell

    Apparently, you have to be a Green Party "co-ordinator": //t.co/Efgmiqni

  10. jackeheron

    @mikestuchbery A thoughtful article on the response of the left to Western intervention in M East and N Africa #auspol //t.co/xx7VnCxz

  11. George Hallam

    I hold no brief for Assad but I do object to the term ‘useful idiots’.

    It is not that it is insulting, it is to be expected that people will demean those who disagree with them. The problem is with the idea that ‘idiots’ can be useful. Or more precisely, that having the support idiots is an asset for a cause.

    If there are real idiots around then, surely, the best one can hope for is that they will join the other side.

  12. Rupert Read

    Thanks George. I agree with you entirely. The title was not mine: it was imposed upon me by the Left Foot Forward editors. I have objected to it strenuously, but they refuse to change it.
    Furthermore, due to human error (mine!), the version of the piece published here is mostly an uncorrected early draft. I do not stand by it. If you want to know what I really think, then please goto //rupertsread.blogspot.com/2011/10/medialens-under-lens-over-syria-and.html
    I have asked LFF to change the piece to reflect what I actually think! But they have again refused. I think it is very unfortunate that LFF are muddying the waters here on this important topic by not replacing the above with the correct version.
    Anyway, as I say, you can read it here: //rupertsread.blogspot.com/2011/10/medialens-under-lens-over-syria-and.html

  13. John Leach

    (some of my comment here refers to text in Rupert’s corrected version of his article over at //rupertsread.blogspot.com/2011/10/medialens-under-lens-over-syria-and.html)

    “I found Medialens’s opposition to UN involvement in the Libya situation very troubling.”

    This references the Medialens alert “To Avert A Bloodbath – Libya And The Press – Part 1”. //www.medialens.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=644

    That Medialens article doesn’t really oppose UN involvement. It described some instances where the UN involvement was not positive, and shows how the mainstream media have largely ignored it or played it down – which is predicated by the propaganda model.

    “Most of it is defecting soldiers, as reported here by the Guardian”

    In that Guardian article they just declare that fact – no reference. In fact, the one paragraph about it in the article is pretty weaselly.

    generally though, I think what Rupert is overlooking here is that both the protesters and Medialens can be right. Some results of the intervention may well be positive, but we do not know for sure what the intentions of those in power are. It’s definitely interesting to see the mainstream media overwhelmingly report it as you’d expect them to: assuming good intentions all the way.

  14. Enrique Mills

    //t.co/WefejBf9 Exposed: The pro-Assad useful idiots in our midst – Left Foot Forward

  15. Susan Dirgham

    In Australia, the single narrative we have in the mainstream media in regard to Syria is that the President al-Asad is a brutal dictator and the army is killing peaceful democracy demonstrators. It is almost impossible to present a much more complex and realistic picture. The gate-keepers won’t let it through. I was a teacher at the British Council in Damascus for two years and have returned to Syria several times to visit friends. My last visit was in April 2011. What I learnt from that visit includes the following: 1. The support from a majority of people for the president is genuine. It is hoped that the pressures from the genuinely peaceful protesters will give him an opportunity to introduce the reforms he has been wanting to introduce for years. 2. Hundreds of soldiers have been killed. The brother-in-law of a friend was killed in April when he was in his car in Homs with his two teenage sons and a nephew; they were all killed, targeted because he was an army officer. These are the stories the people in Syria know but they don’t get out to the world. 3. Chants at demonstrations included, “Send Christians to Beirut and Alawis to the grave.” Extremist imams in Qatar and Saudi Arabia have called for the overthrow of the government and the use of violence. Their calls have been on satellite TV or on the internet, so they are common knowledge. 4. Journalists from Al-Jazeera and other satellite channels have resigned in protest at the coverage of the uprisings in the ME, including Syria. Ghassan bin Jeddo, the former head of the Al-Jazeera Beirut office, has spoken at length about this and has referred to the ‘smear campaign’ against Syria. 5. A lot of the reporting about Syria on Al-Jazeera and other channels has relied on fabricated videos, false witnesses, or footage from other channels. 6. Judgements about the ‘revolution’ are being based on the stories of individuals who support the narrative; the stories of my friends in Syria and Syrian Australian friends are given no attention. 7. Serious analysis is not being presented in the mainstream media which indicates how difficult it must be for anyone to offer anything which challenges the comic-book narrative.
    There is a lot which can be written. On Syrian and Lebanese TV, there are discussions about these matters which can go on for hours, so this needs to be understood when we try to explain the situation in a short comment, a news item or a tweet. We in Australia are consuming news and imagining we understand the world; we think we can tell people in Syria the story of their country. What we need is analysis and wisdom; otherwise, the lives of many millions of people are going to be affected in tragic ways by our misinformed certainty.

  16. walter

    Rupert I was very disappointed at this attack, particularly it’s inescapable sectarian feel.

    Why did you not, as a self-proclaimed former supporter, first attempt to engage Media Lens with your criticisms?

    You talk of overwhelming evidence but your links provided make no mention of even a threatened civilian massacre, the purported reason for the attacks on Libya. Indeed one says of Gaddafi’s threats to the rebels “Rebels have scoffed at the reports, saying they proved the Libyan army was not strong enough to attack”. This is not evidence at all.

    You compare the ‘illegal lie-based attack’ on Iraq but wasn’t the Libya no-fly zone itself a huge lie, the aim being the illegal one of toppling Gaddafi? And if this was a lie, weren’t the Nato bombing attacks then illegal?

    Without, apparently, attempting to assess the human cost of this civil war (tens of thousands presumably), including the apparent 2600 Nato bombing sorties on Libya, how can you straight away make overtures for the same illegal action again in another country?

    Your friend’s analogy of the addiction to shopping is very weak as Media Lens have helped exposed lies on Libya – lies which your article suggests you seem comfortable with – and so have every right to oppose the resulting w-a-r.

    Walter

  17. Rupert Read

    Thanks John.
    I appreciate what you are trying to say here, but I don’t see how both both “the protesters and Medialens can be right” – given that Medialens give positive voice without criticism or comment to people like Chossudovsky who paint the protesters as negative sectarian forces. It is an extraordinary case of blaming the victim.

  18. Rupert Read

    Walter, you speak of an ‘inescapable sectarian feel’ to my criticisms of Medialens. I literally have no idea what you are talking about. [Though if you want to see sectarianism and abuse, then look at what Medialens’s supporters have been saying about me on their ‘Forum’. They have exhibited an almost total failure to engage with the substantive points I make, in the name instead of slagging me off.]
    The reason I wrote what I wrote is that I was outraged by Medialens’s attack on the Syrian democracy movement. I found it appalling that they were siding with the oppressor, in the name of uncovering media bias.
    End of.
    Perhaps you are right that I should have engaged with Medialens first. Perhaps I should have written to David and David first. I fear that it would not have changed the outcome, though. For all of their virtues, for the all the good work they have done over the years, being willing to listen to criticism is very palpably not one of their strong points.

  19. Rupert Read

    Susan; thanks for some interesting material. But I have to tell you that I find it difficult to engage with it seriously. Because your first point appears to me to discredit you. You say: “(1) The support from a majority of people for the president is genuine.” That flies in the face of everything that I have seen and learnt and know. I think it could only be said by someone stuck in a Damascus bubble.
    Moreover, EVEN IF IT WAS TRUE, there is no way you could know it. Because Syria is such a massively repressive society. People trying to voice any criticism of the President, as you surely well know, run the risk of the most horrific torture etc etc. And yet many of them do it now, openly, with astonishing bravery. How many more would join them, if they weren’t terrified for their lives?

  20. AndrewBuncombe

    Here, meanwhile, is interesting rebuttal by Rupert Read of a @Medialens piece on Syria. 'The pro-Assad useful idiots.' //t.co/hwE3smcQ

  21. walter

    Hi Rupert, thanks for responding.

    Thanks for admitting you should have engaged first – too right you should, end of!

    You claim an “almost total failure to engage with the substantive points” on the part of Media Lens supporters. That’s very easy to claim Rupert but I for one put up my post to you there and here, and I note in your reply here you have not engaged with me on my substantive points:-

    1) the overwhelming evidence you implied of a threatened civilian massacre,
    2) the fact that the Nato support for the attack on Libya was evidently based on a lie – the no-fly zone which really means bombing cover for armed rebel attacks which had the aim of regime change, and
    3) the resulting illegality (which was another of the points in your comparison with Iraq) and
    4) the unknown death toll, which is bound to be high – don’t pro-Gaddafi civilians count in your democratic revolution Rupert?

    – all of which you presumably propose to repeat in Syria.

    My suggestion of sectarianism on your part was because the possibility (let’s call it that) seemed obvious, as you scarcely bother to justify your deliberate attacks on Media Lens with anything of real substance, rather glossing over any inconvenient facts.

    Firstly, you refer to a long-running spat with George Monbiot on Rwanda and Bosnia but give a link only to Monbiot’s accusations. You accuse Media Lens of having its own political/moral position on intervening there but they have already made it clear the ‘spat’ was actually about the right of independent analysts to challenge aspects of the official view (incidentally, another substantive point they responded to).

    Frankly Rupert, if you knew anything about this dispute (as one prominent ML poster very non-sectarianly suggested you didn’t) you would not include it in your criticism. A ‘warning sign’, indeed…

    Actually, I defended you on ML but I have to say that your other criticisms strongly suggest that rather than consider arguments you are predisposed to attack ML – these criticisms of yours for example:

    *their dogmatic opposition to any Western intervention in the Arab World.
    *the attitude that seems to have been taken is one of ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend
    *the overwhelming evidence (discussed above)
    *the passé analogy about shopping addiction from a fellow party activist.

    Basically, these criticisms are all easily answered by the fact that opposition from ML to intervention in Libya has been based on the reasons given not standing up. Had you engaged with ML or had you even been folllowing their output on Libya, you would have known this.

    One more contrived criticism of yours to finish off – in your words, the (Media Lens) pretence that all interventions are as bad as each other… comparing with Iraq which you offered (as differences) lies, illegality … indigenous support etc.

    Rupert if you have been following Libya closely you should be aware that these factors do not distinguish the case for the interventions Iraq and Libya. E.g. in the case of the supposed ‘indigenous support’, the case of the repenting Johannes Hari (pointed out by the Media Lens Editors, who you claim have not addressed your points) should suffice as a warning. Also the lies on Libya which I noted, and on which you have since been silent.

    Iraq and Libya are different – the propaganda is much better this time. If you disagree with ML on Libya that’s fine (lots of people on the so-called left bought the propaganda this time round) but your attack on their motives is wholly unwarranted. That’s what I found disappointing.

    Regards
    Walter

  22. Erica Blair

    Rupert writes

    ‘Susan; thanks for some interesting material. But I have to tell you that I find it difficult to engage with it seriously. Because your first point appears to me to discredit you. ‘

    In other words I will use your first point to ignore all the others. How convenient Rupert.

    ‘You say: “(1) The support from a majority of people for the president is genuine.” That flies in the face of everything that I have seen and learnt and know. I think it could only be said by someone stuck in a Damascus bubble.’

    This translates that Susan in Damascus could not possibly be as well informed about Syria as Rupert in Norwich. Unlike the streets of Damascus, the Philosophy Dept at UEA could never be regarded as a ‘bubble’.

    Meanwhile the US State Department Voice of America reports,

    //www.voanews.com/english/news/middle-east/US-Tells-Syrians-to-Reject-Amnesty-Offer-133568603.html

    ‘The United States Wednesday again advised opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad not to accept a government offer of amnesty if they surrender weapons.’

    I expect Rupert would now condemn the US State department as pro-Assad useful idiots for confirming that the opposition in Syria is armed to the teeth.

  23. Syria: When will the West act? | Left Foot Forward

    […] across the Arab world stalled upon the blood-soaked hands of the Damascus despot and his appeasers in the West, writes Shamik […]

  24. billy_bob_tweed

    It’s always a good exercise to return to these prophetic blog commentaries for an after-the-fact post-mortem to see who the real “idiots” are.

  25. Questionnable Integrity

    Surely the writer of this piece should reply, looking back at his comments, and wonder what went wrong? An apology perhaps to Media Lens? Or at least some reasoning behind his attack.

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