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.
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• Syrian Uprising: YouTube clips show continued demonstrations after Hama massacre – Daniel Elton, August 1st 2011
• Syria, where innocence is no defence – Dominic Browne, June 1st 2011
• Syria: Footage from the frontline – Dominic Browne, May 10th 2011
• Syria: A nation bloody but defiant – Dominic Browne, May 6th 2011
• Wave of unrest spreads to Syria – Seph Brown, March 19th 2011