Barnabas, Amnesty, and the Media

One of the things that concerns me most about the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East is the matter of how it has been reported.

A friend of mine recently attended a public meeting organised by the Barnabas Fund to publicise the suffering of Christians in different parts of the world. I wasn’t at it, so emailed my friend to ask what had been said at the meeting. I was told

“The baptist pastor from Aleppo was very negative about our secular media’s reporting of the situation in Syria. He spoke very highly of their president, Assad. He highlighted on one slide that Syria was a very stable country throughout the 90s and In 2003 they accepted many Iraqi refugees (which it did without a single ‘refugee camp tent’) until 2011 at which point the war in Syria began. . . . loud and clear was a disgust at secular Western media and their portrayal of the war. “

The Barnabas website

Not surprisingly, the Barnabas Fund’s website also had a lot to say about the western media – particularly about events in Syria.

To give some examples:

After a month of relative quiet, the Christian quarter in government-held Aleppo has again been hit, with Islamist rebels firing rockets and mortars indiscriminately. As Western media focuses on the renewed Russian air assault on the rebel-held eastern enclave, Christians continue to face the threat of sudden bombardment by the rebels.”

Fighting resumed in rebel-held east Aleppo on Saturday (22 October) following the end of a unilateral three-day ceasefire announced by Russia. Western media outlets, with their focus on the rebel-held areas, continue to present a largely one-sided picture of events, so the suffering in the streets of the government-held areas tends to be overlooked..”

The relative silence of the Western media over the situation in the government-held areas of Aleppo extends to the government’s provision of humanitarian aid to the rebel-held eastern region, where tons of milk, vegetables, canned food, wheat and bread have been distributed in the last few days.

. . . “Unfortunately – your media is totally silent and nothing mentioning of this,” commented the Aleppo church leader.

Immense suffering has been caused in the rebel-held region where, according to UN estimates, over 250,000 people currently live. It is right that attention is drawn to this. But there is a tendency for the Western media to tell only part of the story, implying that the government-held region, which houses at least 1.2 million people, is largely unaffected when this is simply not the case.

Several expert commentators are calling into question the narrative being spread by Western media about the nature of the unrest in Syria. Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of Barnabas Aid, said “The Christian community in Syria is already suffering as a result of the unrest there and this will surely only intensify in the event of Western-backed military intervention. Christians in the West should not stand by and allow their governments to destroy Syria – and the Syrian Church – in pursuit of their own political interests in the region. I urge Christians not to accept blindly all the mainstream media reports about this conflict but to read for themselves the carefully considered arguments of dissenting voices.

And it is not just the Western Media’s coverage of Syria that the Barnabas Fund is concerned about. Regarding the case of Aasia Bibi, in Pakistan, they write:

However, what is equally disturbing is the reporting of this case in much of the Western press. In some countries, major national newspapers and TV simply did not cover the story at all. In those which did, rather than explaining why Aasia Bibi and hundreds of other Christians have suffered under the “blasphemy laws”, some Western media twisted themselves in contortions to avoid making any link between Islam and Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which specifies a death penalty for defiling the name of Muhammad.

Amnesty

And it is not just the Barnabas Fund that is concerned. There’s Amnesty International.

According to the  Parliamentary report on Britain’s military involvement in Libya in 2011, and in particular, the part that reads

“An Amnesty International investigation in June 2011 could not corroborate allegations of mass human rights violations by Gaddafi regime troops. However, it uncovered evidence that rebels in Benghazi made false claims and manufactured evidence. The investigation concluded that: “much Western media coverage has from the outset presented a very one-sided view of the logic of events, portraying the protest movement as entirely peaceful and repeatedly suggesting that the regime’s security forces were unaccountably massacring unarmed demonstrators who presented no security challenge.”

And journalists are also concerned. Patrick Cockburn, an award-winning journalist recently described as “the best western journalist at work in Iraq today”, last month wrote: “The extreme bias shown in foreign media coverage of similar events in Iraq and Syria will be a rewarding subject for PhDs students looking at the uses and abuses of propaganda down the ages.

Government and the media

One thing particularly concerns me. I’ve said it before, but I’ll repeat it.

“It is worth noticing that Western media were biased in exactly the same direction as their governments. That raises an interesting question: “Were Western governments unduly influenced by the biased media, or was the media coverage biased because the media did not want to be out of step with the politically powerful, or was there a general bias in Western countries which affected both media and governments?”

Gareth Porter, a veteran reporter and historian, seems to simply assume that most of the mass media in America is closely aligned with the political establishment.  Hence, in one recent article on Syria he says

“In fact, most of the news media, think tank specialists on the Middle East, and the Democratic Party political elite aligned with Hillary Clinton, now lean toward treating al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate as a strategic asset rather than a security threat.”

In another, he writes

“Could senior Obama administration officials have been unaware that a war to overthrow Assad would inevitably become an enormous sectarian bloodbath? By August 2012 a US Defense Intelligence Agency report intelligence warned that “events are taking a clear sectarian direction,” and that the “the “Salafist[s], Muslim Brotherhood and AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq]” were “the major forces driving the insurgency”. Furthermore, the Obama administration already knew by then that the external Sunni sponsors of the war against Assad were channeling their money and arms to the most sectarian groups in the field. But the administration did nothing to pressure its allies to stop it. In fact, it actually wove its own Syria policy around the externally fuelled war by overwhelmingly sectarian forces. And no one in the US political-media elite raised the issue.”

When Porter talks about the “political-media elite”, he is saying that the political elite and the media elite are so close to each other that they are basically one.  And he knows what he is talking about. He has been reporting and writing about current events for over 40 years.

Another startling insight comes from veteran journalist Michael Cieply, who left The New York Times this year after 12 years as a reporter and editor there. What he says about the New York Times is very interesting.

For starters, it’s important to accept that the New York Times has always — or at least for many decades — been a far more editor-driven, and self-conscious, publication than many of those with which it competes. Historically, the Los Angeles Times, where I worked twice, for instance, was a reporter-driven, bottom-up newspaper. Most editors wanted to know, every day, before the first morning meeting: “What are you hearing? What have you got?”

It was a shock on arriving at the New York Times in 2004, as the paper’s movie editor, to realize that its editorial dynamic was essentially the reverse. By and large, talented reporters scrambled to match stories with what internally was often called “the narrative.” We were occasionally asked to map a narrative for our various beats a year in advance, square the plan with editors, then generate stories that fit the pre-designated line.

Reality usually had a way of intervening. But I knew one senior reporter who would play solitaire on his computer in the mornings, waiting for his editors to come through with marching orders. Once, in the Los Angeles bureau, I listened to a visiting National staff reporter tell a contact, more or less: “My editor needs someone to say such-and-such, could you say that?

The bigger shock came on being told, at least twice, by Times editors who were describing the paper’s daily Page One meeting: “We set the agenda for the country in that room.”

Another veteran journalist, Eric Margolis, is even blunter.

The great Mark Twain wrote early in the 20th century: ‘if you don’t read newspapers you are uninformed. But if you do read them, you are misinformed.’ Amen. As with the 2003 war against Iraq, the US media totally dropped its mask of phony impartiality and became a cheerleader for the Clintons and their financial backers. Media was clearly revealed as a propaganda organ for the ruling elite. No wonder its disgusted clients are decamping to online sources or just ignoring the biased media.

It is not just the Barnabas Fund and Amnesty International. Experienced journalists are openly sceptical about and critical of the western media.

The bigger issue

And Eric Margolis, in quoting Mark Twain’s comment that “if you read the newspapers, you are misinformed”, raises an important issue. Today, if you live in the west (or, indeed, almost anywhere in the world), there is a very good chance that you either read a daily newspaper or watch the news on TV or listen to it on radio. For many people, this is a daily ritual – and is, indeed, seen as a duty.  And this ritual has a big effect on the way that those who practice it see the world – which means that it has a big effect on the way they think about everything.

That marks a major change that has taken place over the last 200 years. For most of history, this didn’t happen. The fact that it happens today means that the mass media has huge influence. And Cieply’s comments about the New York Times having a “narrative” and seeking to run stories that fit a “pre-designated line” and “setting the agenda for the country” are particularly interesting.

Now, one might say “Well, that’s just the New York Times – there are a lot of newspapers, TV channels and radio stations. I can choose the Guardian or Telegraph, the BBC or ITV.”

But look again at what the Barnabas Fund, and Amnesty International, and Patrick Cockburn and Gareth Porter and Eric Margolis said. They spoke about “the media” as if it was one entity. And the problem is that on many matters, the western mass media does speak with one voice. And that one voice is often seriously misleading. Yes, you can find the truth if you look around – there are journalists who are telling it – and they are sometimes published in mainstream publications – but you have to look hard. And sadly, the mainstream media is often seriously misleading on some of the biggest and most important issues of the day.  And if the mainstream media does have a big effect on how we see the world and how we think about things, then that is a BIG problem.

And that is one of the reasons that I blog.

I blog to warn people about the dangers of trusting the mass media. I blog to try to get the truth out there. I blog to try to get stories out there that people are not hearing.

Am I biased? Perhaps. But I try to be as balanced as I can and to give both sides of the story. In the darkness, I try to shine a light.

And there is some good news. “There is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.” (Luke 8:17) One day, the truth will come out. All of it.

But in the meantime, I intend to try to do what I can to make at least some of it known.

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