Every so often something happens to you which propels you into a different world. It’s not usually a better world, and it is accompanied by a sense of shock.
Philosophers have called it a ‘disclosure moment’. We, the public, talk about ‘the penny dropping.’ They come as small pennies, and huge ones. Mine today dropped with a thud that felt ominous.
It’s about Syria and the newspapers.
I have had a lot of trouble understanding what has been happening in Syria, and it’s been made worse by a deep conviction that I am on the end of a stream of fake news, and a large proportion of it coming from my government and the media I read. I hate this feeling. I don’t think I have ever known it as intensely or remorselessly as over Syria.
This is not the moment to look back and ask why so many Western Governments want to overthrow an admittedly unpleasant, heavy handed Syrian regime. But not unlike Iraq, under Assad, as in under Saddam Hussein, there was a careful working balance between Christians and Muslims and others. At this stage of world affairs, that’s no mean achievement. And it was never clear who was going to replace Assad. The crowd of contenders had some very nasty people amongst them indeed. So, paying close attention to the serious matter of intended outcomes, why do it?
The chemical attacks have posed a constant conundrum. With Russian help, Assad was winning and will win. Only one thing would jeapordise his political and personal survival and victory; the use of chemical weapons. So why would he use them. What for? With what end in mind?
When the chemical attacks started, the absolutely critical element was the question of evidence. Was it clear beyond a shadow of a doubt it was Assad and the regime? Because he was the only party who had no interest in using them and turning the world against him.
Each time the evidence has been missing. Each time our Government and the media have qualified the link with ‘supposed’ or ‘assumed’.
I have been reading Peter Hitchens carefully, since he shares the same logical caution and knows where to look for evidence that can be relied on. He can’t find any. Peter Ford, a former ambassador to Syria, has gone on record on the BBC, saying he believes the chemical attack was a hoax.
On Saturday 14 th of April, the Times newspaper launched a vitriolic attack against half a dozen academics who had put together a working group of concerned academics, who like me were increasingly worried about the way in which both governments and media were moving into the realm of propaganda; political assertions without facts.
The Times’ Leader hammered them: “Some of the academics involved disseminated material that is wrong, unscholarly and morally odious…they display an exaggerated willingness to entertain any idea, however improbable, that acquits the regime of Vladimir Putin and its client in Damascus of abominable acts.”
The trouble is that this kind of extremist language, without any qualification, reads much more like the partisan propaganda of say, ‘The Morning Star’, than one of our most reputable papers dedicated to looking at both sides of a story.
The only example they give is that one of the members says that ‘Russia Today’ offers platform for people who don’t get their voices heard elsewhere. The Times says this list includes “neo-nazis, genocide deniers, fantasists and racists.” The only emotive category of reprobates of total depravity left off, is paedophiles.
Then it goes for the jugular: “no reputable university would employ a holocaust deniar in a department of history, or a geocentrist to teach astronomy. The universities who unwittingly provide cover for these agents of disinformation and cheerleaders for despotism have a case to answer.”
In other words, through guilt by association with holocaust denial, the Times whips up a lynch mob to attack these academics and get them sacked.
This is neo-Macarthyism- verging on neo-inquisition. This doesn’t just smell fishy, this stinks.
Why should the Times try to silence and get sacked academics who are asking the same questions and sharing the same concerns as one of our most eminent journalists, Hitchens, and most informed ambassadorial commentators, Ford? And why should it exchange the careful language of testing arguments for the shrill hysteria of denunciation?
It’s a good rule of thumb in the psychological, therapeutic and even political sphere, that if you find an exaggerated response, that it out of rational proportion with the matter in hand, then suspect and look for another, as yet hidden, cause.
I have no clarity about what that cause is, but it’s aims are clearly to get rid of Assad at all costs, and clear the ground in the Middle East for a different power broker.
It doesn’t tax my brain too far to come up with a very short ‘short list’. But what scares me, quite literally, is that in service of this other political interest, our press, perhaps our universities (if the pressure works) and certainly our government, seem willing to give themselves to propaganda and bully and cajole into silence voices that demand hard evidence and want to test the arguments.
The historical precedents from whichever side of the political and historical spectrum, Goebbels, Stalin, Macarthy and the Inquisition among them, are not good company. But when once eminent newspapers add their weight to the suppression of speech and truth, the rest of us ought to recognise that we have a serious fight on our hands, and the stakes are very high indeed.