Peter Oborne’s latest Syria dispatch is a disgrace

Peter Oborne's latest dispatch reads like George Bernard Shaw on Stalin's Russia.

Peter Oborne’s latest dispatch reads like George Bernard Shaw on Stalin’s Russia

The humanitarian disaster that engulfs Syria continues to be an object of media fascination. Journalists in the West, whose families are not threatened by government militias or gangs of jihadis, postulate and probe the situation from a distance.

The impetus for intervention has passed, and so the media consensus, ever fluid to the needs and wants of readers, has shifted. Now newspapers seem to be content to gawk at the hideous and seemingly unsolvable violence, and commentators are happy to broadcast the comforting inanity that we were right to stay out of the conflict.

The most recent example is the Telegraph’s Peter Oborne: a political columnist who has been uprooted and dropped into the most violent and bloody nation in the Middle East. Consequently, he does not leave the relative safety of Damascus, and produces his copy from a government district. In doing so, he is safe from the fighting, and, it appears, the facts.

Let us review those facts. Peter Oborne, who has not seen any rebels, or travelled to any rebel areas – summarising the inherent weakness of his reportage with a single, breezy clause: “I have not spoken to the opposition” – manages to draw an entire article, a thousand or so words in length, from a single, unalterably biased viewpoint.

In his conversations with the citizens of a government controlled region, he manages to turn propaganda, by some feat of factual transfiguration, into ‘truth’.

And why shouldn’t he? After all, it fits the narrative he is trying to create, one in which President Assad – a thuggish, brutal dictator, whose forces have been described by Philip Luther, director of Amnesty International’s Syrian activities, as “committing war crimes by using starvation of civilians as a weapon of war” – is a nice man who occasionally gets stuck in traffic jams.

Oborne, who despite this episode, remains a journalist I respect immensely, should not be allowed to get away with writing the following nonsense: “I am well aware that the government has committed dreadful atrocities, though I suspect that some of the accounts have been exaggerated.”

In a single sentence, in which he introduces no supporting evidence, no new insight of note, Oborne denigrates the tales of outrages committed by the government.

But, without reference to someone credible, or serious investigation from the man himself (of the sort that, had it occurred, Oborne would not exactly shrink from detailing for the public) this utterance cannot possibly stand up.

Oborne slavishly, and masochistically, repeats the propaganda that the President, head of a government which has used chemical weaponry, possibly multiple times, on civilian areas, can sometimes be seen driving to work from his “relatively modest flat”. Is it too hard to suggest that this story – one of a particular genre: many a Soviet poster showed the unassuming way in which Stalin spent his days -might have originated from, or been supplemented by, one of the minders who accompanied our hero for “much of the time”?

But the worst error Peter Oborne makes is one of classification. He suggests first that there are “no ‘good guys'” in Syria. That is utter rubbish: there are no good guys if we only count the regime and the religious fundamentalists. There are secular democrats in Syria, and, because of the prevalence of those mentioned previously, they need our support. Oborne’s thinking discounts, and does a major disservice to, the Kurds, for one thing.

It is not a zero sum game between the mullahs and the government murderers, and it is both foolish and misleading, for someone in Oborne’s position especially, to suggest otherwise.

All the while, the crisis is not stopping. There is no winding down of the violence and horror; not because those in the West have other things to worry about, in Ukraine and elsewhere, and certainly not because Peter Oborne suddenly appears to back Assad.

Meanwhile, out of the bounds of this sub-academic speculation, the deadline for the destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons hoard is running out. The number of total refugees from the conflict has passed the 2.5 million mark. At the beginning of this year, the UN even suspended the counting of the dead, such is the virtually unimaginable scale of this tragedy.

That cannot be dismissed with a glib line or two about the nastiness of all those Islamists Peter Oborne has never met.

This article ought to serve as a warning. This sort of writing occurs when commentators masquerade as war correspondents, and when right-wing, isolatinist ideologues masquerade as unbiased journalists.

James Snell is a freelance journalist

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35 Responses to “Peter Oborne’s latest Syria dispatch is a disgrace”

  1. Aran Burton

    Hypocrite or Armchair pundit? I can’t decide. You criticise Oborne for not being close enough to the action – all from the comfort and safety of Southend! I know it’s rough, but it’s not Damascus.

    Does a self-confessed libertarian really have a place on a left-wing political website?

  2. James Snell

    I criticise Oborne for not doing the job of a foreign correspondent when he is in the position to do so. The fact that his piece does not stand up to me, and yes, I’m not there, underlines its rottenness.

    Libertarians, in case you didn’t know, are social liberals. So, yes.

  3. Aran Burton

    Your own article says he isn’t a foreign correspondent, make up your mind.

    Furthermore, “Liberal” does not denote left-wing. Case in point, I direct you to your hero, Winston Churchill, he was a supposed liberal for a long time, but his views were incompatible with the modern notion of liberalism.

  4. James Snell

    No, he isn’t. I see no difference between my stated opinions before and my comment.

    Also, the emphasis is on *social*. I am not a conservative in any case. While I might disagree on economics with a fair amount of this site’s contributors, and possibly readers, I am firmly in the progressive, liberal camp on social issues.

    Churchillian liberalism is a discussion for another day, but his writing is still something to admire, if only as a vessel of consummate style.

  5. Aran Burton

    Yet you bemoan his suitability for a job you acknowledge he isn’t doing. I just don’t get what you’re saying.

    Personally, I don’t disagree that a British journalist in Syria should provide a complete picture of the conflict, but if that’s not what he’s there for (this is Peter Oborne after all) then why are you so outraged?

  6. James Snell

    Because it’s a puff piece justifying indifference towards the deaths of many thousands.

  7. insolito

    You make some genuinely decent points. Particularly the one about the ‘no good guys’ (which is at least understandable: in a massive war, those who kill most steal most attention and they at present are the bad government and the most vicious rebels so they are what Oborne make his judgement on. But you are correct – he is wrong).

    But I have to take issue with your criticism of the ‘exaggeration’ line. Reports of Assad regime attacks have often been exaggerated and there is significant evidence for that. That doesn’t make any of its attacks OK – they are despicable. But why should Oborne not say something’s so if it is so?

    The world would be a simpler place if the people with whom we agreed told the truth and the whole truth all the time, and our opponents were despicable liars, but surely Oborne’s job is to soberly report when that is not entirely the case?

    Not a criticism of you, just a question. And I am not a commentor ‘from afar’ (well, I am at the moment) but do have some actual recent experience in the region.

  8. James Snell

    My anger with Oborne’s use of the phrase is because of the casual way in which he invokes war crimes, and the sense of his piece that they are aberrations. At other times he has written deeply unconvincing things about Iran’s nuclear programme too.

    If you have any experience of the conflict or the region, I would be very interested in talking to you. I’m on Twitter @James_P_Snell.

  9. insolito

    Fair enough. I guess there just comes a point where some reporters start looking not only at what they are writing but at the overall total of what is being written about a subject and position themselves accordingly. When your main dedication is not to a political ideal or party, but to ‘truth’ it DOES become kind of a weight to continually see things accepted and reported unquestioningly as ‘fact’ and maybe sometimes we childishly kick against that. I’ve been guilty of that before.

    As for the Iranian nuclear programme, has anyone EVER written reliably about that? Even the US government admits it doesn’t actually really know what’s going on with that.

    I may get over to twitter at some point. I’m supposed to be working now though. But I’ll make a note…

  10. James Snell

    Thanks for your comments. It would be great to hear from you.

  11. robertcp

    I do not think that there are many ‘good guys’ in Syria and the awful Assad regime would not have survived unless it had some support. Our priority should be a negotiated end to this civil war.

  12. Mike Stallard

    Isn’t the problem one of religion?

    President Assad and his family are of one kind of Islam and the vast majority of his people – except the security forces – are of the other.
    Saudi is on the side of the vast majority; Iran is on the side of the President and the security forces.
    Russia is traditionally on the side of the Iranians and the USA sees the rebels as freedom fighters who are fighting for democracy, freedom and the American Way of Life.

    I think myself that the USA have got it very badly wrong. I also think that Russia have got it very badly wrong. This is a religious war. President Assad is fighting desperately for his very life. The rebels are fighting gallantly for their place in paradise and their very lives too. Both sides are vicious and ruthless killers.
    Christians, of course, are fair game for everyone. Shame really. I am a Catholic myself. Syriac Christianity is very old indeed and we used Iranian incense this week at Mass. But – hey – who cares about Christianity! The National Secular Society would have quite a lot to say about all this.

    In no way ought we to get involved. And when the Jihadis come back home to England, they ought to be watched very carefully. This must in no way involve our secular society. We have already done our wars of religion.

  13. septicisle

    I suspect the author’s real problem with Oborne’s report which he naturally doesn’t address is that it sets out something hardly any Western correspondents have engaged with: that despite everything, Assad seems to both retain significant support and has not been overthrown ala Gaddafi or scuttled away as Ben Ali and Mubarak did. This can’t be explained purely as being down to the undoubted brutality of the Ba’ath, or out of fear at what the opposition might do should they seize power; it’s because a certain section of the Syrian people supported him when the protests broke out and continue to do so now. You can accuse Oborne of naivety for repeating fairytales about Assad driving to work as if there isn’t a war, but that doesn’t detract from his setting out a position barely given any thought elsewhere.

  14. Alec

    Do you not remember how Gaddafi was overthrown? Plus, Ben Ali and Mubarak’s countries were heavily reliant on US input, so their Generals had an interest in getting rid of them.


  15. Yohan

    I find it very strange for someone like James who probably never been anywhere near Syria to mount such unjustifiable attack on Peter who has just come back from Damascus and witnessed the brutality of the so-called freedom fighters.
    I studied Arabic in Damascus for a whole year and have travelled throughout Syria. I have never seen happier people during my stay, and if that says something, it definitely is for the credit of Assad who had given his people free education, health and many other amenities which we have to pay for here in the west.
    I fully agree with Peter that this is a Wahabi Jehadist war waged by the like of saudi Arabia, qatar and turkey to destroy the harmonious secular mosaic that is Syria and divide up into religious states that justify the existence of israel.

  16. watani sourya

    As a Syrian from Damascus, I can only manage to shake my head in disbelief – Assad, and his father before him, organized the Syrian state into a huge Mafia-like enterprise, and now Oborne , and others, somehow gloss over this abomination, and dare suggest that there is something good in this.

  17. Alastair Sloan

    For me this piece raises one question – have you ever been to Syria?

  18. Michaelinlondon1234

    Both the person you are whineing about and the person concerned do sum up why we should stay out of Syria. Remember this is a country that was sanctioned by the US government years ago. It is also a country Bush swore to destroy. Looks like that has partially been achieved.
    So stay out. O is it the political classes are just like Jimmy saville. They can not help but to molest a country.

  19. Michaelinlondon1234

    The problem is how do we convince our politicians to stay out of the affairs of the country.
    Remember we have a pro Israeli mafia occupying most of the top positions in UK political circles

  20. Michaelinlondon1234

    Just over 17 million people have died this year. Are they all you responsibility?
    Nearly 42 million have been born. Are they also you responsibility?
    Of those born a lot live in countries with poor or declining Arable land. Is that your responsibility?
    We have had a hundred years of Save the Children and Unicef type organisations but almost no Family planning Why?

  21. James Snell

    The illogical idiocy of your comment is breathtaking. You essentially seem to be saying that since we can;t help or be responsible for everyone, we should help or be responsible for no one.

    What a callous dogma, and what a nasty and reductive way of looking at the word.

  22. Michaelinlondon1234

    Cut the crap out. We have all seen families fleeing Syria with huge families. So where is your own responsibility in destroying your own country with far to many children and no Family planning? Why have you not been working for repairing the land from over grazeing and poor cropping? And you do not wonder why most of the country is now a desert? This has been going on for years. Central government is always a Mafia type organisation we have exactly the same in the UK US and Israel. You expect sympathy for something you created like this?

  23. Michaelinlondon1234

    Our priority should be to keep our politicians so pre occupied with the screw up they have made in the UK that they do not have time to screw up some one else’s country
    Syria will sort itself out if we do not interfere.

  24. Michaelinlondon1234

    Try answering the questions If you would like a debate.
    Perhaps you would like to advise this person

  25. S&A

    ‘I find it very strange for someone like James who probably never been anywhere near Syria to mount such unjustifiable attack on Peter who has just come back from Damascus and witnessed the brutality of the so-called freedom fighters’.

    Oborne ‘witnessed’ nothing. He is a useful idiot who has uncritically relayed all the BS his Syrian official handlers passed him.

    ‘I studied Arabic in Damascus for a whole year and have travelled throughout Syria. I have never seen happier people during my stay, and if that says something, it definitely is for the credit of Assad who had given his people free education, health and many other amenities which we have to pay for here in the west’.

    So if they were so happy, why did they all start demonstrating for reform in March 2011?

  26. S&A

    The parts of your comment that are actually comprehensible are pretty despicable.

    You are one sick puppy.

  27. Michaelinlondon1234

    So are you saying we should repeat WW1& 2 where countries needed to expand so invaded their neighbours? It might have worked when there was only 2 billion people on the planet. We are now up to 7. Have a look at the demographics of middle eastern countries. Most are going to double in 20 to 30 years. We could always repeat this.

  28. S&A

    Are you on crack?

  29. Michaelinlondon1234

    Work through some of these and that is conceptually where I am coming from.
    This is a population clock
    Syria looses about 0.7% of its arable land a year.
    Its population almost doubled in 25 years. Admittedly a large slab of people were from the Iraq war and Israeli being set up and Israel’s regular invasions of Lebanon.

  30. S&A

    So your argument is that letting Syrians kill each other will stop the world’s population explosion …

    Yes, you are on drugs, aren’t you?

  31. Michaelinlondon1234

    You deal with your paranoia with drugs and stop trying to inflict them on me. I will deal with my Issues.
    If you really are that concerned with other people then sort out our societies were there are half a million in the UK using food banks and in the US it is 50 million people on food stamps.
    In the EU there are 80 million with a reading age of ten or less.
    Or perhaps were 1% of the worlds population acumulate nearly 90% of the wealth. Syrians will sort out there own country if we stop molesting them with sanctions. Remember there is a reason why Jimmy Saville was so successful in this society. I do not see a lot of difference between his type of actions and the foreign office over the last 20 years.

  32. Paul J

    “There are secular democrats in Syria,…”

    What the f*ck are you on about, you naive plonker? There aren’t ANY secular democrats among the armed opposition , not a single brigade among the thousand plus armed groups. You are either extremely ignorant, or you’re lying.

    There is no third option, just like in Syria itself. It’s Assad or the Islamists.

  33. Paul J

    Those “peaceful protesters” were in part violent sectarians from the very start. Here’s a link for you, it’s from a pro-rebel organisation.

    A list of Syrian soldiers and policemen killed in April and March of 2011. There’s a hundred per page.

    Now i know you’re not one of these “change my mind when given convincing evidence I’m wrong” type of guys, but it might at least make you less ignorant.

  34. S&A

    I don’t know what planet you live on – geographically or morally – but for you to justify Baathist state terror against civilians is really sick.

  35. James Snell

    It looks like I have to call you out on your ignorance. Re-read what I wrote, and then re-examine what you wrote. Then you might understand why you’re wrong.

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