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By Jason Michael

Okay, I can understand why folk are worried there’s something of the tinfoil hat about the eagerness of so many to accept the Russian claim that the video footage of an alleged chemical gas attack on civilians in the town of Douma in Syria was staged by British intelligence. Surely if a cruel Arab tyrant murdered our loved ones with chemical weapons we’d want people around the world to believe us and put pressure on the governments of the free world to intervene. We assume that our government – the British government – is one of these free world good guys. It’s difficult to imagine that our government might be the baddies.

Before pulling at the threads of the British government’s decision to bomb Syria, I would like for us first to consider – knowing that in fairness we know next to nothing about the conflict in Syria – how easy it is for us to simply presume the guilt of Bashar al-Assad. He may or may not be a cruel despot, but for the most part the image constructed of him and his “régime” by the western media for our consumption is based on the carefully manufactured and deeply racist trope of the Arab tyrant. In this regard we have met Assad before; he is the new Saddam Hussein, the new Gamal Nasser, and the new Nebuchadnezzar. He is Alexander’s Darius and Aladdin’s Jafar.

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The western psyché is trained to understand the symbol of uncontrolled Arab-Muslim leadership as a threat to the power and supremacy of white Europeans. Assad is a good Middle Eastern leader so long as he is controlled – by us. Once he, like Saddam Hussein before him, is no longer under our control or under the control of another global power he is a bad guy. He becomes the archetypal dangerous Arab.

Whether or not Assad’s government used chemical weapons against its own citizens, we have been primed to believe the worst of him. Our government is good and to be trusted. This is what our media has been teaching us for decades. He – as an unsubjugated, post-colonial Arab leader – is presumed guilty. Such monstrous despots, in our imaginations, are capable of anything. Of course, we assume, he is capable of something as callous as using a deadly poison against women and babies in some unheard of village in the desert. Let’s at least be aware of these pre-installed western assumptions of the Middle East as we consider the part Britain is now playing in the Syrian crisis.

It is now well known that British intelligence was involved in the production of staged beheading videos for use in the US-led coalition’s battle for hearts and minds – code for its propaganda war – in Iraq and Afghanistan. Britain developed and deployed military grade psychological manipulation techniques against a civilian population in occupied countries. We have no reason to believe Britain would not employ similar tactics in this conflict. Fake beheading videos gave the occupying forces in Iraq and Afghanistan a moral basic to extend and deepen the nature of their so-called war on terror.

A staged gas attack provides the US and its allies a justification for military intervention in a conflict in which they have strategic interests. The British may be telling the truth, but their outrageous and criminal behaviour in other conflicts gives us no reason to trust them. Britain is not the most trustworthy state, and so it is understandable that people will accept Russia’s claims over whatever London has to say.

The danger is that this assumes the trustworthiness of Russia. Vladimir Putin has a dog in this race too, and anyone who imagines the Kremlin is a more honest broker than Whitehall or the White House is a fool. These are all players on the global stage who are lying even when they are telling the truth. Russia has a version of events that suits its agenda, and the US and the UK have their own – but we do have another version.

Robert Fisk is an award-winning English investigative journalist widely considered to be the best British correspondent in the Middle East. He visited Douma days after the alleged attack, and in a radio interview with Spirit FM said that he had spoken to the senior medic at the town’s clinic – a man who “spoke excellent English.” This doctor said that the video was not staged; that is was real, but that it was not of children being treated after a chemical gas attack. He says the children were being treated for the effects of dust inhalation as a result of being forced to live in tunnels. We have no reason to doubt this doctor, and we have no reason to think Fisk is lying.

Yet even this version of events would suggest that at the very least the US and Britain were prepared to use this video to mislead the public and so falsely justify their armed intervention. Since reporting this, Fisk has found himself on the receiving end of a government and media-led smear campaign; painting him – him – as a conspiracy theorist.

On the face of it Britain is now prepared to lob its best people under the bus to protect a particular narrative of what is happening in Syria – a version that the public is simply refusing to accept. “Fake news” – or what we used to call “propaganda” – has always been of paramount importance to state governments – especially in western democracies – as a means of manufacturing consent for military intervention. Dictatorships and totalitarian regimes don’t require the same level of public support as democracies. So when Britain wants to get rough it has to convince the British public its war is morally good, and it does this by relying on an explosive mixture of pre-constructed ideas of bad foreigners and propaganda-cum-fake news.

In the age of the internet and instant global communication this becomes more difficult. Real journalism – the quality and heretofore trusted journalism of old school investigative journalists like Robert Fisk, Vanessa Beeley, Eva Bartlett, and others – can only get in the way of this state programme of news for distraction and news for pretext. Keeping the story straight thus requires the British government and its media machine to wage a dirty war on real journalists.

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Robert Fisk: Journalism and ‘Fake News’


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