We like to keep our articles short, ideally below one thousand words. People are busy, and we hate waffle. But here we deconstruct a one-and-a-half hour BBC documentary film to show the lie it tells, so it’s a bit longer, a good fifteen-minute read. Much more if you also watch the film. The programme, Storyville: Under the Wire, is not actually a special case of deception. Where war, and much else, are concerned, deception is normal. But Under the Wire provides a good example of War propaganda right now, while at the same time being an example of the propaganda that helped to get the Syrian War going in the first place. It’s also a useful example of how News is “spun” to tell lies. Hopefully you will gain insights from this article that will help you to detect spin in other areas.
Just to be clear about our own stance, we are not worshippers of Bashar Assad’s Government. However, we do think that in relatively multi-cultural Syria, Assad’s approach is the by far least bad option. More importantly, his Government was and is the fully established and recognised Government of Syria. It is very rare for the violent overthrow of an established government to demonstrate net benefit for the people. Also, as Christians, we see love for enemies not only as a commandment, but as the only practical way to improve lives. We cannot dictate that others love their enemies, but we can show where lies serve to sow hatred and indifference. This documentary is but one of those lies.
Storyville: Under the Wire was available on Iplayer, but we now have a copy which we can supply for personal study if you ask on the Contact Page. It is a very tense dramatic production, partly reconstructed, and designed to make viewers feel sympathy for the Reporter-Heroine Marie Colvin, who met her death. Viewer sympathy naturally grows to include her wounded cameraman Paul Conroy, the author of the book on which the film is based. Viewer sympathy is also directed strongly toward the local civilians, with a natural backwash of hatred for the Syrian Government. This is inevitable as the background to the whole story is the alleged constant indiscriminate bombing of civilians by the Syrian Army.
Another key player in the drama is Marie and Paul’s fixer/translator, a tall, handsome, bearded Syrian called Wa’el. Early in the programme he tells of destruction coming “down like rain” on the people of Homs. This surely makes Bashar Assad a legitimate object of hatred and attack. Lets look at some context.
1 From 1976 to 1982 Syria suffered serious armed uprisings by the Muslim Brotherhood, designed to overthrow the Government. The Brotherhood has shared ideology with ISIS and Al Quaeda, all of which are Sunni Muslim. The uprisings were brutally crushed. Neither side came out of the conflict smelling of roses. Thirty years later the Brotherhood had recovered and was ready for another “bash”. If they had to pretend to be calling for democracy, that was a small price to pay. The Syrian Government was also naturally on the alert for any repeat rebellion, with every intention to nip it in the bud. There was not, and is not, any legitimate reason for the UK Government or Media to stoke these tensions.
2 The programme was not about Homs, but about Baba Amr, a small suburb of Homs covering just two hundred acres. That’s about the size of Battersea Park in South London. I’d rather make the comparison to Hyde Park since you are far more likely to have heard of it, but Hyde Park is just far too big.
Statements Against Interest.
A Statement Against Interest is a statement made by someone promoting a particular case which actually negates their case. The programme has several of these, both verbal and visual.
1 Despite the claim of destruction “raining from the skies”, no film shot shows serious damage. It’s easy to find photos today of Syrian cities in ruins following years of war. But most of what we see at this time in Baba Amr is superficial. It would be very easy to destroy such a small area very quickly with air attacks, artillery and incendiary bombs. Cutting off the water supply would increase the impact by making fire fighting impossible. But we see no incendiaries. No air attack. Not even much evidence of artillery fire. The damage seems to be caused by mortars and small arms fire. Given the tiny size of Baba Amr, all of it was within range of rifle fire from the perimeter. Note that a mortar is a small, smooth bore weapon; it’s not very accurate, and its munition weighs only about five kilos. A single aircraft might carry a thousand times that weight of explosive and deliver it with far greater accuracy. The attack from the sky is obviously very, very limited.
2 We are told that the attacks from the skies start up early every morning. This sounds terrible until you realise it means that the attacks stop at night. Why are these supposedly indiscriminate attacks only happening in daylight? The obvious reason, at least for anyone who bothers to think, is that the Syrian Army are aiming at specific small targets and want to see what they’re hitting. Because mortars are not very accurate, they need to “range-in” on a target, seeing where the munitions land and adjusting their aim accordingly. This is precisely what Paul Conroy describes in the film when he realises the mortars are ranging-in on his position. When the munitions are dropping elsewhere the ranging-in is not obvious, so anyone ignorant of war might assume indiscriminate targeting. But Conroy and Colvin were professional war correspondents. They knew all of this and should have told the truth.
3 All the hospital scenes are in a makeshift “field hospital”, not a proper hospital. But given the tiny size of Baba Amr it would not be expected to have a hospital. And notice that the lights are on, and in one shot there is an electric wall heater running. Baba Amr is also too small to have a power station. Were the Syrian Government continuing to feed electricity into the area? What about water? The answer is that they were still providing both; both power and water to an area held by rebel fighters. When Conroy uses oil lamps later in the film, this is probably due to very local damage to power lines.
4 People in Baba Amr were said to be “freezing and starving”. Homs is a little warmer in February than London in February, and we’ve already seen that mains electricity was still available. However, it is inevitable that food and fuel supplies were disrupted by the fighting. Anyone who doesn’t like that as a standard conflict scenario, including the BBC, should be opposed to war, not just to one particular party involved in it.
5 There’s just one shot of Conroy in a room with armed men. Clearly there is combat going on. This shot passes very quickly, with no comment at all, unlike the film of women and children tucked away in a basement for safety. They call it the “Basement of Widows”, but there is no evidence for the name. It is natural for the women and kids to be somewhere safe. The men could be there too, but they are out fighting. Their positions are what the mortars are aiming at.
6 There is film of a demonstration at night. Why at night? Because, as already noted, the Syrian Army are only firing during the day. In the evening it’s quite safe to gather in a public square.
7 In a demonstration at about twenty-three minutes into the film we see a very clear placard in English saying “WE ASK FREEDOM”. Who is meant to read that? Clearly it’s staged for the cameras. Another large placard, probably in Arabic, across to the left of the picture, is curiously illegible. Was this one expressing something nearer the truth? Was it smudged prior to broadcast?
8 The Heroine Marie Colvin turns out to be very rude to French Reporters when they turn up just as she did. She calls them “Euro-Trash.” It’s her story, and she doesn’t want them muscling in on it. But we have been told that her motivation for being there is to get the truth out. If that was really the case, she would have been delighted to see more foreign Reporters. Colvin had three marriages, one ended by the suicide of her husband, two by divorce. No children. She lost an eye in fighting in Sri Lanka, and managed to get herself killed at fifty-six in Syria. Ironically, Bashar Assad, the main object of her hostility, used to be an NHS Eye Surgeon in London because he was touched by the affliction of blindness. Colvin is less the Heroine, more the flawed human being elbowing her way through life in an attempt to fill her own needs. It’s unlikely that any Amish woman would ever get to hear about her adventures, since the Amish are not big on news. But any who did hear would probably be reduced to utter perplexity and floods of tears. That is far more appropriate than admiration.
9 At one point Colvin and Conroy leave Baba Amr because an attack by Syrian Infantry Is expected. They return when the attack doesn’t materialise. This event is infused with a great deal of emotion in the film, which cranks up our sympathy even more. What is not told is the simple military reality. Military Strategists consider it almost insanity to attack enemy positions without “softening up” first by artillery, air or mortar attack. Since mortar attacks were ongoing, it was evident that a ground operation was coming soon, in order to return the area to Government control. Conroy managed to leave finally just before it eventualy happened. This is further evidence that both Colvin and Conroy knew how things worked, and the talk of indiscriminate shelling of civilians was a lie.
Other Things to Know.
The rebel organisation that held Baba Amr during the period of the documentary was the Syrian National Council or SNC. The SNC was a Muslim Brotherhood organisation. There are many such rebel organisations in the Syrian conflict, both Brotherhood and other. A distinctive feature of the SNC is this: when other rebel groups came together at the Geneva II Conference prepared to talk to the Government, SNC broke ranks because it insisted only on fighting and overthrow. With the SNC it’s kill or be killed. And only the most genuine, convinced Christians will accept the latter.
Marie Colvin’s family have sued the Syrian Government for damages in a US Court and been awarded $300 million. The Syrian Government have not paid up. Why not? Imagine that at the time of the IRA Troubles in Ireland, a top Libyan Journalist had asked permission to report from there, and was denied it by the UK Government. Imagine that he was then smuggled in by the IRA, and sent out anti-British reports from Derry that were published around the Globe. Imagine that he was then killed in the fighting, and his family sued the UK Government for £300 million. Would the Government have paid? Would the BBC be singing his praises as they do with Colvin?
Did the Syrian Government target the Media Centre in Baba Amr with its foreign Reporters? Did they use Satellite Phone signals to help with targeting? The answer to the first question is probably “Yes”. The answer to the second is more difficult, technical, and ultimately irrelevant. This is war, this is how it works. Guns and propaganda, soldiers and journalists; all are in it together. Again, anyone appalled by this should be resisting all warfare every way they can.
Is it possible that Syrian troops shot unarmed protesters as happened on Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland? Absolutely. Does that make Assad a mindless savage? Yes, in so far as the Bloody Sunday killings make Ted Heath a mindless savage. Does it mean Syrian soldiers should be in Court? Yes, in so far as it means British soldiers should be in Court. Condemn the actions. Beware the hypocrisy. Remember that peace only comes through Forgiveness.
Did Syrian shelling kill civilians in Baba Amr? If you are unfortunate enough to end up in a situation like Baba Amr as a civilian, you keep out of harm’s way as much as you can: stay underground, stay away from firing points or observation points used by fighters, as these will draw enemy fire. But doubtless there were casualties. During the invasion of Normandy, sixty thousand French civilians were killed by Allied, not German, bombing. The modern terminology for this is “Collateral Damage.” There is always collateral damage, which is generally reckoned to be acceptable if “we” do it, but heinous if “they” do it. Sometimes it’s not collateral, such as the deliberate bombing of densely-populated German civilian areas, on Churchill’s orders, in World War II. But it’s not done to talk about that.
Is there any good news here? Well, Wa’el the fixer/translator, who played a small part in starting the chaos and destruction in his own country, has been able to move to another, the UK. Paul Conroy got himself a good book out of it, but like many who experience the brutality and adrenalin rush of combat, he has to keep returning for more doses. It is impossible not to feel sympathy for him as he wells up at the end of the film. He put himself through some kind of hell, and in “Muslim Brotherhood versus the Eye Surgeon” he wasn’t even on the right side. Is there ever a “Right Side”? Perhaps one day he will experience the Love of Christ and find a new path. That’s the only truly Good News.
What we have, if we view it correctly, is a profound insight into how British people were introduced to the then nascent Syrian War. How the media massaged public opinion. How the British Government were then able to send “non-lethal” supplies to the rebels, to deploy the RAF, to send in the SAS, to support the massive American involvement. And also how that same propaganda is now recycled. It is being recycled because Britain lost the War, in the sense that Bashar Assad is still in power. Israel has ramped up air strikes on Syria in recent weeks, something the BBC fails to mention. But air strikes alone can’t overthrow a Government. Some other action would be needed, so the British Public still need to have the “Assad the Terrible” image implanted in their minds. Without this, they might object to a war on Syria.
They key point here is that action against Assad’s Government has repeatedly been justified because he “indiscriminately bombs his own people”. This programme is the best evidence available for that allegation. But the programme itself demonstrates that it is a lie.