Medialens under the lens, over Syria and Libya: Becoming the new Dave Sparts?

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 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 the last resort of intervention now, as with Libya, and to any serious criticism of and serious attitude to brutal regimes, such as Syria’s.

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’, their attitude seems to have been 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 intervention under the responsibility to protect (though not by ground troops): It is very likely that the UN-backed, internationally-legal action in Libya saved Benghazi from a bloodbath.

Certainly, this is view is held by the Libyans who 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 wars or Western proxy wars, or to take up an absolutist position of non-violence. What is hard to respect are the following two attitudes: (1) The pretence that there can never be a justification for last resort military interventions (as we should plainly have done to stop the Rwanda genocide, for instance), and that there are no relevant distinguishing features between, say, the internationally-illegal lies-based war on Iraq and the UN-backed NATO operation in Libya, which occurred in response to indigenous calls for help; and (2) 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 the latest, deeply-dismaying ‘media alert’ from Medialens, focussing on Syria: In this alert, Medialens blatantly cherry-pick their sources. They begin by quoting 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”.

This is classic blaming-the-victim propaganda. Why are Medialens, in citing positively such pro-Assad statements in effect shifting — from supporting the oppressed to supporting the oppressors?.

Chossudovsky, while well-respected as an academic within his area, is evidently an unreliable individual in this context, someone who (when it suits his argument, and Medialens’s) cites Israeli news sources with known biases on the subject of Syria uncritically, someone who wildly alleges Mossad plots to foment rebellion in Daraa (the place where the Syrian uprising began, in response to horrendous government torture of children 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’.

Contrary to Medialens’ rather bizarre stand on Syria there exists carefully collected data that conveys how the Syrian revolt started in Daraa (see International Crisis Group reports on Syria which also draw on sources within the government, security and party apparatus:{1341CC4D-F195-4B82-A9B9-0411818FDB03} ).

Given that Syrian protestors are still being killed every day it is in fact astounding that the take up of arms is not actually on a much wider scale. The International Crisis Group reports do not shy away from acknowledging that there are gradually-growing elements of an armed insurgency in Syria and for the growth in agent provocateurs of all colours. However, it is clear from the daily footage coming out of Syria via social media sites and Facebook groups over the past months that, remarkably, most protests are still peaceful. Whilst it is hard to verify content on social networking sites it is clear that the overriding narrative is one of peaceful protest and that some prominent and experienced activists have a known record by now for providing pretty reliable information on this. So whilst elements of the Left debate how they can continue to align with or apologise for the Syrian regime, based on its support of Hamas and Hizbollah and its opposition to Israeli expansionism, etc., they are blind to the great intellectual and political shifts taking place in the region. The crisis engulfing the region’s historically Left-friendly dictatorships is a crisis that I hope will allow those on the Left unequivocally to condemn a regime for murdering its civilians whether or not that regime is against Israeli foreign policy (rather than to condemn peaceful democracy protesters for “creating divisions within Syrian society”.) Ideals of Arab unity should not and do not include embracing the murder of innocent protestors!

This should all be obvious.

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 most 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 the real reforms needed are not taking place and the regime has committed grave crimes against humanity. It is clear, in other words, that the Assad government is unreformable. So there is no longer anything 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 that it can with live fire and the most hideous torture known to humankind. It is extraordinary how the discipline of this movement of non-violent resistance has stood up under the most extraordinary provocation ( ); the Assad regime makes Mubarak look like a softie, by comparison. It is deeply-dismaying therefore that Medialens are willing to paint the Syrian protesters as American or Israeli stooges.

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 seeking smuggled arms may well be simply heads of families anxious to defend themselves, in a situation of growing uncertainty. 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 relatively small element of it. Most of it is defecting soldiers, as reported here by the Guardian: . Do Medialens think it is somehow not right to encourage soldiers to defect to the opposition? Do they think that soldiers who do so will not or should not take their arms with them? When they will certainly be killed or tortured if they are captured by the government.

By distorting what is happening in Syria – by giving credence to the ravings of the likes of Chossudovsky, and ignoring the voices of the Syrian activists who are still the mainspring of the movement – Medialens is performing a gross disservice to us all, and above all to the Syrians getting killed everyday.

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.’ I believe that that attitude is lazy.

The left can’t deal with the Arab Spring. Being green or Marxist or leftist means for them being 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 understand that the farmers in Daraa don’t give a shit whether America supports them or opposes them. The people in Daraa understand the world more than the leftists. They do things…
Moreover, 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 Michael Moore than like the MediaLens of 5 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 say this: . 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. They should bin Chossudovsky et al, 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 low-quality work (i.e. in using unreliable / 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 external powers, whatever their motivations, have done something on balance good by intervening in Libya and ending Gaddafi’s mass-murderous regime, 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. (By contrast, it is encouraging that the UN have at least now made an unequicoval statement on Yemen, calling for Saleh to go: .) 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 (heroic) Syrian revolutionaries by quoting nonsense from hopeless sources. Otherwise, they will join Pilger, John Rees et al in becoming nothing more nor less than the new Dave Sparts, mere dogmatic opponents of anything and everything that the ‘imperialist’ powers say and do, and tacit apologists in the process for Gaddafi, Assad, and other thugs who were/are every bit as much war-criminals as Bush and Blair.

[[N.B. This is a corrected version of a piece just published under my name on Left Foot Forward. Unfortunately, the version that they published was a mostly uncorrected early draft. And the title they imposed on the piece was not mine, and I have objected to it strenuously. So: I disown the version they published. Here is the actual piece.]]

17 thoughts on “Medialens under the lens, over Syria and Libya: Becoming the new Dave Sparts?”

  1. “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”.

    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.

  2. Thanks John (and thanks dissisdent93 – your work has indeed been useful). I appreciate your thoughtful comment. It is a real shame that so few of the comments – basically, abuse – on the Medialens MessageBoard and Facebook site have been even one tenth as thoughtful. I have stopped looking at these sites now. But I am happy to engage in dialogue with people who are actually interested in dialogue, rather than in irrational abuse.

    I wasn’t relying on the _Guardian_ article for that fact about defecting soldiers. That is overwhelmingly the impression I get from those I am in contact with in the Syrian democracy movement. The Guardian story merely put this point into the public domain.

    I think that the Guardian reporting and the Newsnight and Channel 4 reporting on the Syrian uprising has been really very impressive, on balance. For once, our media are doing a pretty good job.
    The sneers of Medialens about this media and about the Syrian democracy movement, in this context, are really contemptible.

  3. Hi, Rupert. You say that you are happy to engage, but you haven’t answered my question: who do you think will benefit the most from ‘our’ bombs – the people of Libya and Syria or rapacious corporations?

    Do you think that Obama and Cameron et al should be praised or prosecuted for killing people for rapacious reasons?

  4. Rupert, thanks for your reply and your kind words 🙂

    I’m glad you weren’t relying on that article, but you do reference it as evidence. A bad choice imo.

    The Guardian story “puts the point into the public domain”, but it does it in a weasly way imo. It states that soldiers have fled the army. And then states that 1,100 “security officers” have been killed. I think it implies that 1,100 solders have defected to fight, but it doesn’t say it directly and doesn’t attempt to substantiate it.

    I nitpick though.

    More broadly, you say the media are doing a pretty good job for once. Even if they are, and Medialens et. al. are completely wrong, it is interesting to look at why they’re doing a good job in this instance (and in contrast not doing a good job in other instances).

    It’s certainly interesting to look at why the things Medialens draw attention to are not treated seriously by the mainstream media. It is rarely because they are beyond being treated seriously.

    I don’t think Medialens maintain a “pretence that there can never be a justification for last resort military interventions”. They’re looking at how the media treat different viewpoints and facts differently depending on who it is they’re reporting on.

    There is definitely a risk of the ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend’ attitude, but here we’re more looking at how my enemy’s enemy is portrayed in the media, compared to my enemy’s friend.

  5. Tony; it may well be that rapacious corporations benefit from what is happening in Libya. Let’s work to stop it from being. Remember that rapacious corporations were doing just fine thank you very much under Gaddafi, too – the oil business was booming.
    The point is that 2 wrongs don’t make a right. The people of Libya asked for our help in freeing them from a dictator who was threatening to put the blood of many of them in the streets. If you and medialens had had your way, he would have got his wish. End of.

  6. Rupert, you say rapacious corporations were profiting under Gaddafi, and ‘it may well be that corporations benefit from what is happening in Libya’. Is there really any doubt at all about the latter? If we are to work to stop this happening then surely one area to begin might be to look at the heavy bias of the mainstream media in favour of corporations and the huge military operations that pave the way for exploitation. You now support the Guardian and others coverage on Syria because they’ve apparently done a good job ‘on balance’. But where is the balance?

    With Libya you echo the rhetoric that is used to justify every single ‘regime change’: that even the bloodiest intervention is justified because there was about to be a bloodbath of some kind anyway. But you also say ‘2 wrongs don’t make a right’: in that case, how can what has just happened in Libya ever be ‘right’? As I understand it, NATO flatly refused to entertain any peace initiatives despite the rulings of the UN Security Council that there should be a ceasefire and now there is mounting evidence of terrible war crimes. You also seem to be forgetting that without the support of the western powers, Gaddafi would very likely not have clung on as long as he did.

    I really am astounded that as a proponent of the Green Party you are attempting to justify these hideous events. I am left wondering -where is the dissenting voice? When I was growing up in the 80s the Greens were often derided in the media for their environmentalism and pacifism. Now it seems the solution to this when it comes to war is ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ – so there is now very little distance between your pro-military intervention stance and anyone else’s in mainstream politics.

  7. Look, Brainchild: sometimes rhetoric is true.
    Were you against intervention in Rwanda? Do you think it was a good thing that we did hardly anything to stop the genocide there?
    If you do, then we (ahem) disagree. If you don’t, then you have accepted that there is the responsibility to protect – which is international law – and that we ought to act on it. Then the only remaining question is whether the UN was right to decide that the responsibility was triggered by Gaddafi’s attempt to take Benghazi back, coupled with his promises that there would be no mercy shown the Benghazians.
    Many people in the Green Party opposed our joining the UN-mandated action in Libya. But it is a bit rich to pretend that it is obvious that the right thing to do for Greenies would have been to have abandoned Benghazi to its fate, and to have let Gaddafi snuff out the Arab Spring in Libya and (in effect) beyond. Where is your international solidarity? Where would you have stood on the Spanish civil war? Are you pleased that the British government abandoned the Republican government in Spain to its fate, and left Spain under Franco’s heel for two generations?
    The people of Libya were crying out for UN intervention. We answered their call. I’m proud that we did.
    Ask a Libyan. I have. Have you?

  8. Much as I am enjoying the debate, folks, btw, I think I should point out that the debate here is basically irrelevant to whether my piece on Medialens on Syria is basically correct, or not. Seeing as I have received virtually no substantive objections to what I say in that piece on that central topic, I shall assume that it is generally conceded that my argument there IS correct.

  9. Thanks for your response to my comment Rupert.

    To answer some of your questioning – of course I am not ‘pleased that the British government abandoned Republican government in Spain to it’s fate’ or that the hideous mass murders in Rwanda were not prevented. Using the argument that if someone objects to these terrible events in Libya they are probably against intervention of any kind, anywhere, ever – and therefore by implication probably pro-fascist or pro-genocide – is again rather reminiscent of some rhetoric we’ve heard before: ‘Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists’.
    If it really was as simple as that, I might as well insultingly state that the bloodshed we have just seen in Libya must have been exactly what you were looking for!

    I don’t think you have addressed my main question, which was, I thought, pretty simple: if your comment above that ‘2 wrongs don’t make a right’ is true, how can you possibly justify the violence perpetrated in Libya in the name of ‘freedom’?

    You referred twice in your piece on Medialens to ‘last resort’ military intervention. In what sense was military action a ‘last resort’ in Libya? I’d be very pleased to see the evidence that all other avenues for a more peaceful resolution were exhausted.

    I note also you have nothing to say about the tacit support for Gadaffi and other despots by the same western powers who then go in with guns blazing – or is this also ‘irrelevant’ as far as you are concerned?

    You reply that the UN were called on by the Libyan people and that ‘we’ answered their call. What about NATO’s role in all this? Did they answer the UN’s call (presumably on behalf of the Libyan people) for a ceasefire? Are you proud also of NATO’s actions in Libya?

    Finally I think it may be a little presumptuous to say in your latest comment above that because as yet you have received ‘virtually no substantive objections’ (some then?) it is a sign of general assent to your point of view. I would hazard that several of the comments on this page are relevant to whether your piece was ‘basically correct’ or not, since they disagree at least in some measure with both your analysis of the situation in Libya and your attack on Medialens.

  10. John: you’ve got to be joking when you say that Medialens have published ‘substantive objections’ to me. They have published a combination of substantive concessions (which I am glad to see), rhetorical irrelevances, avoidances of the subject, and a couple of massive bloopers. Most strikingly: They fail to realise who Eric Posner is: he is an ultra-right-wing Bush supporter, who doesn’t believe in international law at all. He was an apologist for the Patriot Act and Bush’s policy on torture:

    And, of course, I had cited someone like Posner as an expert authority, you’d never hear the end of it from Medialens.

    I am sorry, but I am not going to dignify Medialens’s response to me with a reply.

  11. Brainchild: I’ve already replied to these points of yours.
    You still haven’t said anything about Syria. The reason seems clear: What Medialens said about Syria is indefensible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *