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Making up the news: How the Western media misreported the Syrian convoy attack

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of this site. This site does not give financial, investment or medical advice.

The story of the attack on the humanitarian convoy in Syria is a case study in the collapse of journalistic standards and ethics.

I do not know who attacked the convoy in northern Aleppo.  However I note that the Syrians and the Russians have publicly and categorically denied having done so. 

By contrast the US has stopped short of publicly identifying either the Syrians or the Russians as the perpetrators of the attack on the convoy, though they have said that it was attacked in an air strike and that only the air forces of one or other of these countries must have done it.  They have also said that the Russians bear “responsibility” for the attack on the convoy, even if it was the Syrians rather than the Russians who did it.

Instead of the US publicly identifying who they say attacked the convoy, two US officials are doing  so anonymously, in comments to the BBC and Reuters, spreading a story of two Russian SU24 fighter bombers supposedly being seen in the air (by whom?) in the area of the convoy.  These same two unnamed US officials are also claiming that the attack on the convoy was revenge for the US air strike on the Syrian troops defending Deir Ezzor.

Given the choice between straightforward public and categorical statements of denial from the Syrians and the Russians, and elliptical semi-secret off-the-record insinuations of Russian guilt from the US, the Western media without hesitation preferred the elliptical semi-secret off-the-record insinuations of Russian guilt from the US.  As a result it was reporting all of yesterday as fact that it was the Russian air force which attacked the convoy.

This is the reverse of what responsible journalism would do.  It should hardly need saying that a straightforward public denial ought always to carry more weight than elliptical semi-secret off-the-record insinuations of guilt. 

It is not after all as if those making the elliptical semi-secret off-the-record insinuations of guilt do not have a bad track record of giving wrong and misleading information, which ought in itself to be a reason to doubt that what they say is true.  The US has a record of feeding the media false information extending all the way back to the Gulf of Tonkin incident and beyond.  Moreover the mere fact the two US officials spoke to the media on condition of anonymity was itself manipulative and ought immediately to have raises health warnings about the truth of what they were saying. 

To compound the problem the evidence of what happened is being provided by a group called the White Helmets, whose record shows them to be sympathetic to the Syrian opposition, and local “activists” whose video of the incident – complete with slogans of “Allahu Akbar” – shows them to be Sunni Jihadist militants.

As to that evidence, the Russians have cast doubt on what it shows.  Russian Defense Ministry Spokesman Igor Konashenkov is reported to have said

“We carefully studied the video recordings of the so-called activists from the scene and found no signs that any munitions hit the convoy”.

According to Konashenkov, the vehicles show no destruction by the burst wave as would be the case from an air-delivered munition.  Moreover

“Everything shown on the video is the direct consequence that the cargo caught fire and this began in a strange way simultaneously with carrying out a massive offensive of militants in Aleppo,”

As my colleague Alex Christoforou has pointed out, the Russians are also claiming that Jihadi fighters were spotted by their drones accompanying the convoy.  Here is Konashenkov again

“Analysis of video records from drones of yesterday’s movement of the humanitarian convoy across Aleppo’s territories controlled by militants has revealed new details. It is clearly seen in the video that a terrorists’ pickup truck with a towed large-caliber mortar is moving along with the convoy.

It is not clear who is covering home: either the mortar is covering the convoy with the White Helmets volunteers or vise versa.  And the most important question: where this mortar had disappeared when the convoy reached its destination and where it was targeting fire at when the convoy was being unloaded.”

This is the broadest of hints that the likeliest explanation for the destruction of the convoy was that it was either caught in the crossfire between the Syrian military and the Jihadis as the ceasefire in the area broke down, or that it was intentionally destroyed by the Jihadis themselves, presumably as some sort of “false flag” operation.

Given the way the Jihadis have conducted themselves during the Syrian conflict, the latter is neither a wild nor an outlandish theory.  No less an official than Harald Kujat, former chairman of the NATO Military Committee and former Chief of Staff of the German Armed Forces, is reported by TASS to have told Germany’s N-TV channel

“I cannot imagine that Russia wanted to torpedo its agreements with the United States by this attack” [Kujat said, adding that he did not believe that] “Syria’s authorities would bomb a convoy of the Syrian humanitarian organization, the Syrian Red Crescent.

So we have only terrorists who absolutely do not want the US and Russia to unite their military efforts in line with the agreements and act together against them.  But there is no proof so far, an investigation on the scene is needed for this.  All we hear now is just speculation.  It should be noted that starting from yesterday the UN has been talking about just an attack rather than attack from the air as they cannot prove this was bombing.”

(bold italics added)

Possibly as a result of Kujat’s comments the German government is stepping out of line with the US, and is refusing either to call the attack on the convoy a “bombardment” or to say that the Russians were responsible.

Once upon a time this situation would not have arisen.  Not so long ago the big Western media agencies – not just the news agencies but also the big newspapers and the TV stations – employed armies of field reporters.  Following an incident of this sort they would have rushed to the scene to find out what had actually happened.  It would have taken no time at all for them to confirm whether the convoy really was attacked in an air strike or whether the absence of bomb craters and other tell-tale signs of an air strike showed that it had been attacked or destroyed in some other way. 

I can remember for example how in 1991 during the first Gulf War the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen visited a bunker destroyed in an air strike in Baghdad with heavy civilian loss of life and effortlessly demolished Western military claims that the bunker was a command post.

Of course if the Jihadis in control of the area where the convoy was destroyed were not prepared to allow reporters to visit the area to find out what had happened, that would have been a news story in itself.  Not so long ago the BBC, following an incident of this sort – if its reporters were not able to visit the scene – would have impartially reported the allegations and counter-allegations, and have said that it could not confirm them.

This simply doesn’t happen any more.  The big Western media agencies no longer employ the armies of field reporters they once did, and the few they still do seem in many cases to be little better than hired guns, sent to the scene not to report what actually happened but to give on-the-spot corroboration to the line already taken in the editorial office, which seems invariably to be the line taken by Western governments.

In the case of the attack on the convoy no attempt to visit the scene of the attack seems to have been made at all, making it easy for both the US and the Jihadis on the spot to manipulate the media and control the story, so that it is reported in the way the media already wants. 

That unfortunately is what happens when a media becomes more interested in promoting a narrative than in reporting the truth.


The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of this site. This site does not give financial, investment or medical advice.

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